Hokkaido’s Bear Farms
Tucked into the mist that crawls in the foothills of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido are secrets wonderful and disturbing to behold. There you’ll find burned ruins of not-so-ancient cities drowned in magma and ash, mountain paths so overrun that you have to hop across the mountain stream to reach the top, and curious creatures who have walked the woods and cliffs for so long, the people of Hokkaido dare not tread the same ground.
Among the most controversial of these secrets is the existence of bear farms. They are now widely considered to be chiefly cultivators of tourism and bring in much-needed cash flow to the remote parts of Hokkaido’s wilderness. But not all who make the expansive journey are pleased with what they see.
What Are the Hokkaido Bear Farms?
Bear farms are enclosures in which bears are bred, birthed, and raised by humans. The original intent of the construction of bear farms was to repopulate bear families who were endangered by over-hunting and urban development. While the native Ainu of Hokkaido, Japan lived relatively symbiotically among the bears of Hokkaido, their numbers began to thin once the mainland population began taking over.
There is a vital distinction that must be made between the bile bear farms of China and the conservation bear farms of Japan.
- Bile bear farms are populated by bears in China that are kept in overtly inhumane conditions strictly for the purpose of extracting bile used in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Conservation bear farms raise bears in captivity in Japan under the premise of conservation, but are also used as attractions in which tourists can see and interact with bears in open air and through protective cages or glass.
No matter the purpose, there is a decided split between those who appreciate the opportunity to stand facing a real bear and learn more about their nature and interactions with humans and those who deplore the theft of a natural habitat under a guise of philanthropy that may or may not be true.
Conditions in the bear farms
The Noboribetsu Kuma Bokujo (Noboribetsu Bear Farm) prides itself on the conditions in which its bears are kept. However, the environment is still far from that of the bears’ natural habitat. Bear exhibits are cast in concrete and include wooden exercise structures designed to withstand the weight and might of the bears. Bear feces cannot be constantly cleaned from the concrete, so it tends to pile where bears find rest and sleep. However, bears are well-fed, well-watered, and generally healthy.
The Lake Toya Bear Farm also houses bears on concrete slabs with concrete walls. Baby bears are given beds of hay on which they can lay and play, but the hay is also encased in concrete. Some adult bears are kept behind steel bars and cages, behind which small glass panes allow for tourists to view the animals.
Though not strictly part of Hokkaido, the Akita Hachimantai Bear Farm is part of the northern tradition and conditions at their farm for bears were very similar. The farm had to close in 2012 due to a bear attack that resulted in the death of two women.
Bears in Japan
Bears hold a special place in the hearts of Japanese men and women. They are respected, revered, and cautiously feared. In most northern schools, children are taught the basics of bear survival and are encouraged to always hike around the plentiful wood equipped with a ferociously noisy bear bell. Students learn to run and dodge bears downhill and how to proceed if a bear attack begins.
Types of bears
The whole of Japan is home to only 2 types of bears, and most of both types have been largely relocated or eliminated.
- Ussuri Brown Bear – Known locally as Higuma (sun bear), they are similar to American grizzly bears and are called black grizzly bears in some areas. Forestry and road construction have limited their number to no more than 135.
- Asian Black Bear – Known locally as Moon Bears, they are similar to prehistoric bears and may be their ancestors. They inhabit Honshu and have an estimated population somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000.
Both populations of bears are mostly herbivorous but have been known to attack, kill, and eat humans. Population statistics for bears are not accurate because of the dense vegetation and terrain difficulty.
The Sankabetsu Brown Bear Incident
One of the most famous bear attacks, or series of bear attacks, called the Sankabetsu Brown Bear Incident occurred in Hokkaido, Japan. A single brown bear in Hokkaido that had awoken from hibernation attacked houses in the Rokusensawa, Sankebetsu, Tomamae, Rumoi, Hokkaido region and caused many deaths.
The bear began an initial attack on a household but took only corn from the house’s food stocks. After continual returns to the village, the bear began to attack and kill human villagers. Hunters attempted to kill the bear but either missed their shots or misplaced them so that the wounds were not fatal. Attacks happened mostly in-home, but the bear dragged some victims back to the woods to be slaughtered. Those who recount the event describe the occurrences as nightmarish and brutal, and some were so scarred that they no longer speak of the incident.
The bear was identified as a wild brown bear with a scar originating from the shoulder called Kesagake. It was hunted ferociously but couldn’t be stopped until Yamamoto Heikichi, the hunter who had named the bear, was able to track it and kill it with a rifle shot to the heart and head.
A child and son of the mayor of the village who grew up during the bear attacks became a skilled and successful bear hunter. He swore an oath to his village and its people that he would kill 10 bears in return for the life of each victim of the bear attacks. At the age of 62, when he retired, he had succeeded in killing 102 bears. He created a bear attack cenotaph where anyone can pray for the villagers who died in the attacks.
Because of this incident and a handful of others like it, awareness and protection against bears has become a priority, especially in areas that are remote and include heavily wooded land. Bear awareness and attack prevention are key concepts for children who grow up in villages around Hokkaido as there have been attacks even within the last 10-20 years.
Are Bear Farms Necessary?
Attacks on humans by bears beg the question of whether or not bear farms are a boon or an outdated and inhumane tourism tool. Bear farms that are working to reraise the population of endangered bear species are certainly doing their part to prevent extinction, but there are some who would argue that a severely limited bear population is ideal for enjoying the bountiful nature of Hokkaido.
While bear farms may not be absolutely necessary, they are contributing to the conservation of nature and Earth as a whole. Even those centered on tourism are still protecting the bears from poachers and extinction due to habitat destruction. For some critics of bear farms, however, it may be time to update the conditions within bear farms to better reflect the environment in which the bears would naturally thrive.