The sika deer of Japan, shinroku, are considered messengers of the gods in the Shinto Religion. They are regarded as sacred animals and are allowed to roam close to shrines and temples. Because of their religious importance, the deer have been protected by the government. Until 1937 killing one of the deer was punishable by death (BBC 2016). This protection has allowed their population to increase in size. In Japan, there are certain places where the deer can roam freely and intermingle with the human population. On my four days off I was able to see them both in Nara and in Miyajima. I found noticeable differences of the interactions between humans and the deer in these two locations.
First of all, I would like to look deeper into my own preconceptions of human interactions with deer. I grew up understanding that deer are wild animals. From an American perspective, this means that my interactions with a wild animal would be very distant. To me, this means when I see deer on a hike I am encroaching on their space and should keep my distance, appreciating them from afar. I don’t leave food for them to eat and I stay on the hiking trail so the deer have an undisturbed habitat to live in. I believe deer should be respected in a way that does not leave them depending on my presence for their survival.
Keeping this in mind, I was astonished when I first saw the deer in Nara park. I had heard that the deer were wild and sacred to the prefecture. I believed that my own perceptions of “wild” would apply to the deer and that humans would be at a far distance. Instead I found that the deer were tame and had constant interaction with the tourists surrounding them. Here is a link to photographs of the deer taken by local photographer Yoko Ishii.
This first interaction with the deer made me realize something about sacred objects. I learned that something sacred does not have to be something distant and awe inspiring, but can instead be something close and familiar. The sacred deer of Nara were still respected by the people that interacted with them. Another instance in which I have seen this connection in Japan is Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is a sacred place, but there is constant human activity and interaction with the mountain. Pilgrims and other climbers ascend in droves during the climbing season, and Fuji spring water is used for trout farms, breweries, and factories around the Fuji area.
Stephen Kellert from Yale University indicates that Japan’s attitude, knowledge, and behavior towards nature emphasizes aesthetic appreciation under “highly controlled circumstances” (Kellert, 1993). Kellert claims that Japanese love semi-nature, which is “somewhat domesticated and tamed” (Kellert 1993). This is very apparent when watching the deer in Nara park. They actually closely resemble dogs exited and eager for treats. Kellert also argues that the “environmental features outside of this aesthetic and symbolic boundaries tend to be ignored” (Kellert, 1991). I would further say that the nature that is within such a cultural boundary can also be overlooked. I say this because many of the people who are visiting the deer are only looking through one lens that does not account for the ecological well-being of the deer and the surrounding park.
I think the definition of “semi nature” is exhibited in Nara because of the 1,300 “friendly” deer that live in the park (Japan Experience, 2016). While I was there I noticed deer lining the streets of shops and bus stations. They would walk up to you and beg for a rice cracker. Some would bow their heads while others ran after children who had crackers in their hands. It was like a giant petting zoo where not only the animals but the humans could run wild. There were signs about how the deer could attack humans but there weren’t any about not overfeeding the deer. On the other hand, the deer might be benefiting from the human interaction. There were many old deer in Nara, so maybe they are living longer because of the food the people offer them.
The park itself is run by Nara Prefecture and has been set aside for scenic beauty by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. The deer are considered national treasures. This is because they have such a strong cultural tie to the area. The deer in Nara have been protected ever since a “god rode into the park on the back of a white deer” (Harumi, 2009). It is interesting that they are treated as such tourist attractions when they are considered such a sacred animal.
The deer could get very close to the Todai-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple. This echoes a deer park in New Delhi, India where deer are also considered messengers of the gods. Although deer could not go inside the tall wooden temple building, they could walk along the complex around it, signifying that they are still connected to the sacred place within the park.
There are also ecological effects from the overpopulation of deer. According to Yuri Mawsako from Osaka Sangyo University’s Graduate School of the Human Environment, Nara’s Kasugayama forest reserve is in peril (Bird, 2008). In Nara, the deer population has expanded beyond the grassy expanse that it used to reside on. This forces the deer to go to the eastern section part of the park where the Kasugayama forest reserve is located. They eat a wide range of plant material and strip bark from mature trees and eat young tree shoots. This is preventing the forest from re-growing to is fullest extent and is lowering overall plant diversity in the forest. This strengthens Kellert’s argument that nature that has cultural ties is special, while preserving land for biodiversity is uncommon.
In fact, last year the authorities in Nara explained that the deer population is expanding into the surrounding area so much that it is costing the regional agriculture industry 6 billion yen in damages to crops (BBC 2017). This has caused the government to set up humane traps to capture and release the deer. They are hoping to “catch and release up to 120 animals before March next year” (BBC 2017).
The sika deer can also be found on the island of Miyajima. Miyajima is a part of the first National Park in Japan called Seto-naijai. Miyajima itself was designated as a World Heritage site in 1996. The island has never been logged before because it is considered a sacred space (Matsuii, 2017). This has given the deer more space to live than the human population on the island. Humans appeared on the island over 6,000 years ago (Japan Experience, 2016). The deer used to live in the mountains but have slowly moved closer to the human populations. Once this occurred the deer became “tame” and had a dietary imbalance because of human food. Because of this, humans have not been allowed to feed the deer population (of about 500 deer) on Miyajima since 2008.
Furthermore, on the island humans tried to keep their distance when the deer walked up to them, much like I would if I saw the deer back home in America. (Although when we got off a ferry there was one deer that was unafraid to approach us and bite our shirts.) The area on land was very clean so the deer would not eat trash laying around, although along the beach trash did wash ashore from Hiroshima prefecture and other locations.
On Miyajima there is a UNESCO World Heritage shrine called Itsukushima. The deer could walk much closer to the shrine than the temple in Nara. It seemed like there weren’t any fences so the deer could enter if they wanted to, but I am not sure if they would then be shepherded out of the shrine.
Although this was my first experience interacting with deer in such a way, I found it very uncomfortable to see so many deer being fed and touched without any kind of restrictions. I was so used to appreciating the deer from a distance that seeing such an intimate interaction astounded me. I am glad for this experience because I can see that some sacred objects are meant to be interacted with in such a way. I do believe in regulation for ecological and health reasons. I also understand that there needs to be a balance between tourism for the local economy and ecology for up keeping biodiversity levels. I hope that someday there can be a middle ground between non-regulation of the rice crackers in Nara and complete restriction of feeding the deer in Miyajima.
BBC News. “Japan’s Famous Nara Deer Face Capture” August 1, 2017. Web.
Bird, Winfred. “Nara’s Cute Destructive Deer”. Life. Japan times. October 29, 2008.
Harumi Torii, Shirow Tatsuzawa. “Silka Deer in Nara Park: Unique Human-Wildlife Relations”. Springer Japan. 2009.
Japan Experience. “Five Places to See Deer in Japan”. https://www.japan-experience.com/to-know/visiting-japan/5-places-to-see-deer-in-japan
Kellert, Stephen R. “Japanese Perceptions of Wildlife.” Conservation Biology 5, no. 3 (1991): 297-308. .
Kellert, Stephen R. “Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behavior Toward Wildlife Among the Industrial Superpowers: United States, Japan, and Germany.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 49. No. 1. (1993): 53-69.
Matsuii, Kenichi. Lecture. “Religious Landscapes and protected areas”. July 3 2017.
Shamison, Jacob. “Why Hundreds of Deer Live Peacefully on an Island in Japan“. Business Insider. July 20, 2016.