“Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago” by Mark Brazil

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It is widely accepted that Japan is a country deeply in touch with the natural world. From wall hangings of cranes and turtles, to carp banners flapping in the breeze, haiku about a frog in an old pond, and folk tales about foxes and badgers, Japanese arts and culture are suffused with images of nature. Moreover, in the present day, tourism is sold using images of cherry blossoms, autumn colors, and monkeys bathing in hot springs.

But the relationship is not a straightforward one: the 19th- and 20th-century modernization saw pollution scandals across the country, as well as extinctions such as that of the Japanese wolf. Indeed, in an age of rural depopulation, there are new images such as wild boar and bears taking over abandoned villages. Japan’s relationship with nature, then, is at once familiar and more complex than meets the eye.

 

 Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago, Mark Brazil (Princeton University Press, January 2022)
Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago, Mark Brazil (Princeton University Press, January 2022)

Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago begins by building a portrait of Japan’s physical geography, from geology to climate to habitat. This helps to demonstrate how and why the islands’ ecology has developed its unique characteristics. Most obviously, Japan lies along a north-south axis, giving a broad spectrum of climate, but its presence at the meeting point of various Pacific currents, and its distance from the continent—separate and yet close enough for periodic contact—also contribute to a complex and rich set of ecosystems, with a diverse selection of species as a result.

After this introduction, the main section of the book is an exploration of the animal life of the main islands of Japan, starting with the northernmost of Hokkaido and working south. There is also a chapter on the relationship between the Japanese people and nature, and throughout the book shorter columns explore topics such as the role of isolation in encouraging the development of unique species, various different families of birds and animals, national parks, and wildlife watching. The book, as a result, circles round its subject matter, often touching upon species and themes more than once. Together with the great many color pictures throughout, this is a book to dip in and out of, rather than to read from start to finish.

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While the natural world has been represented in Japanese art and literature going back hundreds of years, the scientific systematization of its knowledge dates chiefly to the last 300 or so, and the presence of Western collectors and students of natural history. For most of the Tokugawa era, there was a doctor stationed with the Dutch trade mission based in Nagasaki. Several of these men were polymaths interested in natural history as well as medicine. The most notable examples were Engelbert Kaempfer, Philipp von Siebold and Carl Thunberg. Thunberg in particular had studied under Carl Linaeus, the originator of the modern system for classifying living organisms and his service in the Dutch East India Company was largely motivated by the desire to explore new habitats and to survey their biodiversity. All three men, together with Japanese assistants, documented the Japanese plant and animal life around them, making collections to send back to Europe, drawing and detailing what they found. Their work is recalled in the Latin names of many Japanese species (and indeed, this book is dedicated to them, together with a fourth Western naturalist, Thomas Blakiston).

One perhaps unintended consequence of this inclusion of Japanese wildlife into a European system is to make the perception of the range of Japanese creatures as less singular than this book reveals them to be. In some cases giving Western names to Japanese creatures is straightforward: Japanese bears are much as one would expect, and Kitsune, foxes, are the same species, Vulpes Vulpes, as in Western Europe and North America. However, the fox’s partner in Japanese folklore is the Tanuki, usually translated as badger. In fact, it is not really a badger (a separate Japanese species of badger does exist, but is uncommon): it is really a different member of the dog family. Here the use of a common Western animal name is misleading. And then there is the Serow, a stocky creature something between a goat and a deer unknown beyond East Asia, and the Amami Rabbit, a black rabbit unique to a couple of islands in the Ryukyu chain. Paging through Japan: The Natural History reveals a range of mammals of real breadth (twice the number of the similarly-sized United Kingdom).

 

Author Mark Brazil is a naturalist and expedition leader. His passion for Japan’s wildlife runs through the book. Beautifully illustrated and only slightly larger than a typical tourist guidebook, Japan: The Natural History is, if not quite a guide to wildlife spotting in Japan, a rich introduction to the diverse habitats contained within Japan, and the animals which live there.


Ian Rapley is a lecturer in modern Japanese history at Cardiff University.