In Japan, where nature is abundant at every turn, wildlife is but one of many treasures hidden among the lush forests, rugged mountains, and breezy seaside. As the seasons change, so do the animals and a wide variety of small animals, birds, and large mammals are proud to call this country home. This article will cast a spotlight on the many majestic animals of Japan and the stunning habitats that they reside.
1. Red-crowned Crane
Of the seven species of crane that are found in Japan, this large white bird is the only one to have known to breed here in the spring. As one of the largest birds in Japan, the red-crowned crane reaches a maximum height of over 140 cm and a wingspan of 240 cm. They live mainly in eastern Hokkaido and are rarely seen in Honshu. It is designated as a special natural monument and an endangered species by the government, and conservation efforts have been ongoing for many years through the hard work and passion of the local people. The red-crowned crane is beloved by many Japanese people because of its elegant and graceful form and it has become a symbol of Japanese culture. As a result, the red-crowned crane has been made the logo of Japan Airlines, the national air carrier of Japan.
2. Brown and Black Bears
Brown bears and black bears are both found throughout Japan and are some of the largest animals found in the country. Brown bears are the larger of the two and are found only in Hokkaido. An omnivorous animal, their diet consists mostly of foods such as ants, nuts, salmon, and other smaller animals like deer. They can reach a height of 2 meters and a weight of 300 kilograms. If you see a brown bear in Hokkaido, do not approach they have been known to attack humans when threatened.
The other type of bear, the black bear, lives in the mountains and forests of Honshu and Shikoku. Like brown bears, they are omnivorous, but they tend to prefer a rich diet of mostly plants and berries. In the autumn, they get fat off of large amounts of acorns and then hibernate during the winter (generally from December to April). In terms of color, they are dark black with a white moon ring pattern on their chest and can reach a length of 100-150 cm and a weight of 40-120 kg. Like brown bears, there have been cases in which they attack people when threatened so best to avoid them in the wild altogether.
Foxes are widely distributed in Japan, mainly inhabiting forests and rural mountains throughout the country. There are two types of foxes in Japan, the Hokkaido fox, and the Japanese red fox. They typically eat small mammals and insects and are known to live alone rather than in big groups. In Japan, due to the influence of ancient Chinese culture, the fox has been regarded as a wise animal and is considered sacred. Since they do not hibernate, you may see fox footprints on the track when you go out to the snowy mountains. With their fluffy bodies and cute round eyes, foxes are widely adored as well as revered for their cultural significance.
Tanuki, aka “Japanese raccoons”, are known to be an animal that often appears in Japanese folklore. Tanuki are around 70~80 cm long and weigh somewhere between 3~6 kg. They typically live in mountain villages and other rural areas, however, are known to stray into urban suburbs all over Japan from time to time. In recent years, as people further develop and buildup cities on what were once beautiful forests, the issue of tanuki causing damage and entering private homes in search of food has been evergrowing. Despite peoples’ best efforts to keep them out, they are a very dexterous animal and are able to climb trees and fences, and are even known to be able to swim.
5. Shika Deer
Deer are were once known to live all over Japan, however today they are mostly found in mountainous villages. In Japan, venison is rarely eaten, however recently the population of deer in Japan has been increasing and so in response, there has been a rise in Japanese restaurants serving venison to combat overpopulation. If you want to meet the deer up close, you should visit Nara prefecture! There are deer living all over the city, and since they are used to humans, they are very friendly and not afraid to come right up to you!
6. Snow Monkeys
Japanese snow monkeys can be found in Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, with the exclusion of Hokkaido, and live in evergreen broad-leaved forests and deciduous broad-leaved forests. They mainly eat fruits, leaves, flowers, seeds, mushrooms, as well as eggs and insects. Their five senses such as smell, sight, and hearing are said to be almost the same as those of humans, and they are considered to be very intelligent animals. Incidentally, at the Jigokudani Yaen-koen in Nagano Prefecture, you can see wild monkeys soaking in hot springs. The sight of monkeys relaxing in a hot spring is a heartwarming sight, even for Japanese who love hot springs!
Official website: Jigokutani Yaen-Koen
7. Manta rays
Now, let’s dive into Japanese marine life! The Japanese sea is a paradise for fish, and there are so many different types of sea critters that call the Japanese waters home. Manta rays are one of the world’s largest stingray species, with some of the largest reaching 6~7 meters in width and many divers long to encounter them in the ocean. They eat mainly plankton such as krill and scoop up vast amounts with their mouths wide open. In Japan, Ishigaki Island is famous for its high population of manta rays. The sight of manta rays swimming leisurely in the sea is very impressive and makes for an unforgettable experience.
Depending on the time of year, you can see a number of different whale species swimming off the coast of Japan. On the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, humpback whales and minke whales can be seen swimming majestically across the sea from May to October. If you are lucky, you can also see killer whales and dolphins swimming around. Hokkaido is not the only place in Japan that offers whale-watching cruise tours, so don’t miss other cities such as those in the south!
One of the most dangerous creatures living in Japan is the Asian giant hornet. They can be found all over Japan, from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south, and live everywhere from urban areas to mountainous regions. Hornets often build their nests under the roof of houses, and their nests can reach 60~80 cm in size. If you see a hornet nest, do not approach it. The sting from the poisonous stinger on their buttocks is extremely painful and in some cases can even lead to death!
10. Mamushi Viper
The mamushi is a venomous snake about 50~60 cm in length and is found all over Japan except for the Ryukyu Islands. They are very aggressive and you must not approach them. If you are bitten by a mamushi, contact a hospital for immediate treatment as their venom if left untreated can prove to be deadly. When walking near water where Mamushi snakes are likely to be found, it is recommended to wear sturdy shoes such as boots.
What did you think of this list of 10 animals unique to Japan? Did you have a favorite? In Japan, animal preservation laws are incredibly strict and so if you do encounter any of these in the wild, it’s best just to admire them from afar and stay clear of any potential danger. In addition to the 10 species listed above, there are many other wild animals that live in Japan. Some animals can only be seen in certain places, during certain periods, and at certain times of the day. Why don’t you go around Japan and meet a variety of cute wild animals? Who knows, you might just find your new favorite animal here in Japan!
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Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education of Japan and got her Master’s degree in March, 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.
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