I thought I was prepared for my visit to Nara Park, home to hundreds of Japanese sika deer. I’d seen friends’ selfies with the wide-eyed animals and heard about tourists feeding them the crackers sold by local vendors. I even passed a television screen in the train station of a cartoon deer on two feet dancing to a children’s song. Despite these hints of what was to come, I was dumbfounded when we finally arrived at the famous “deer park.” Something about the initial sight of humans feeding swarming droves of scruffy deer jarred me—and at first, I couldn’t quite figure out why.
As I tried to make sense of the scene, I realized that I also had to make sense of my own perceptions. What, for instance, made this so different from a petting zoo in the United States? Or from feeding pigeons or ducks at a park? The scenario in Nara was distressing to me, but it seemed incredibly normal to the Japanese around us, locals and tourists alike. A comparative study by Stephen Kellert in 1993 reveals that Americans and Japanese have very different attitudes towards wildlife. According to the research’s results, Japanese tend to have more “dominionistic” or controlling attitudes toward animals, and they appreciate specific animals for “unusual aesthetic and cultural appeal” (Kellert, 1993). By contrast, Americans were generally deemed by this study to have a broader appreciation for and protectionist attitude towards the natural environment despite strong variation within the American population. My own shock at the deer park likely stemmed from a (typically American) desire to see wildlife in wild habitats. What blind spots might my perspective have, and what could be offered through a new lens? A clearer picture would require a more objective analysis of the facts and a comparison of Nara with another place where deer and people live in close proximity: Miyajima.
In Nara Park, the deer are both a local treasure and an economic keystone. Deer plush toys, T-shirts, and magnets line every souvenir shop, and vendors sell crackers to feed to the animals throughout the park. Tubs of water sit outside shop fronts for the deer to drink, even though there are multiple fountains and ponds available in the area. Since the park’s establishment it was envisioned as a sanctuary for deer, which were considered to be the messengers of Shinto deities and were also associated with sermons of the Buddha. Today, the deer are densely packed into a 500-hectare park totally encircled by urbanity. Many were noticeably overweight, apparently from overfeeding by people and little need to move far to fulfill their everyday needs. Despite the fact that Nara Park is a national park, there wasn’t a park ranger to be seen; I couldn’t ask questions about factors such as disease infection rate, management of population, waste control, overall deer health, and casualty rates of both deer and people.
In Miyajima, residents consider the deer to be pests more than blessings (Kenichi Matsui, 3 July 2017). The animals defecate on porches, chew the clothing of passersby, and aggressively pester humans for food. Some of them have even learned to search in purses and backpacks of tourists to find something to eat. Unlike in Nara, tourists are not encouraged to interact with the deer; there are even signs strictly warning visitors not to touch them and to be very cautious of these wild animals. We saw no obvious evidence of control efforts, but a lecture by a national park ranger a few weeks prior confirmed that selective hunting helped to manage deer populations in some parts of Japan (Shinsuke Yukimoto, 11 July 2017). There were considerably fewer deer in this area compared to Nara Park, and they were not confined to a single area. Although Miyajima is an island, it is large, heavily forested, and uninhabited by humans except on certain coastlines.
My models for “nature” and national parks come from places like Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. A park like Nara contrasted dramatically with my romanticized vision of pristine wilderness, untouched by humans. It was obvious that Japanese people’s expectations of nature differed; the deer in Nara are tame in that they don’t fear people and rely on them for food, but the cautious manner of tourists offering crackers to them revealed that these animals were seen as wild and unpredictable. Given the opportunity to conduct a study, I would ask tourists and locals about the amount of time and money they spent on deer, their perceived intimacy or distance with deer, and their personal understanding what constitutes nature or wilderness. Combined with data regarding health and safety of people and animals in environments where their habits overlap, a more complete picture of human-animal ecosystems can be drawn. As human environments expand, overlaps with wildlife will become more common. With a better understanding of these convergent habitats, people can be better prepared to face them and even improve the human aspects of them.