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Japan's Winter Wildlife
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Japan in Winter

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By Jennifer AckermanPhotographs by Tim Laman

A frosted stage gathers red-crowned cranes, whooper swans, sika deer, and snow monkeys. Can Japan turn an ancient reverence for its animals into modern conservation?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In other seasons there might be 20 of us and only a few of them. But now, in the heart of winter, there are 20 of us and 150 of them. We are Homo sapiens, a gaggle of bird-watchers, scientists, and photographers; they are Grus japonensis, the rare and celebrated red-crowned crane.

The field is white and the wooded edges dark with evergreen. Out in the open in the fine snow of Hokkaido cluster the great white cranes, the black tertial plumes of their broad wings arranged over their rumps like elegant bustles. Known in Japan as tancho (red peak), the red-crowned is the second rarest crane species, after the whooping crane, with a world population of fewer than 2,500 birds. It is in other seasons fiercely territorial, but now the birds are gathered in one clangorous flock to scoop up the winter feed laid down for them by farmers. Some stalk the field or stand in pairs, lifting their bills to trumpet a shrill, rolling cry, a "unison" call that carries across the fields. One flares its wings and arches its back in a dramatic threat display to relieve the tension of crowding. A swoop of six arrives on motionless wing from their roost site in a nearby river, drop lightly to the ground amid the others, and lower their heads to pluck the scattered corn, flashing their brilliant caps of crimson like blood on snow.

The Japanese have a word, aware, for the feelings that arise from the poignant beauty of an ephemeral thing. The word refers not to the fragility or loss of the thing itself, but to the human feelings evoked by its passing. Those of us pressed against the rail are elated and grateful for this close look at the cranes concentrated here like a vision—and which, like a vision, may just as quickly vanish. No wonder people fly halfway around the world, board buses and trains and ferries, and wait patiently in the heavy snow to see these birds gather to preen and flare and dance their wild courtship dances. No wonder the crane is revered by the Japanese and so admired that their art never tires of representing it.

Only in Japan's winter does this spectacle occur, and others as well, a striking assemblage of animals, from cranes and eagles to snow monkeys and sika deer, that endure the season's hard tenancy in small refuges, natural and man-made, on Hokkaido and in the mountains of Japan's main island, Honshu. Some of the animals that take shelter in these spots are abundant, even overabundant; others are rare, having been hunted to the brink of extinction or chivied out of their last natural redoubts by human pressures. Some are in the winter of their existence and endure only through the courageous efforts of a few people working against great odds.

The concentration of these creatures in small shards of habitat on a crowded island nation creates scenes of startling beauty—and sometimes, startling conflict. I've come to Hokkaido to learn what lessons might underlie these spectacles, what they might teach us about wildness and survival and the riddle of our own relations to nature.

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VIDEO See how Japan's native creatures survive its harsh winters.

Sights & Sounds

Experience the breathtaking beauty of Japan's wildlife in winter through the eyes of Japanese-born biologist Tim Laman.


AUDIO Hear the calls of Japan's  lovely cranes and swans


Japan's reverence for nature is ancient, but its efforts to protect wildlife are relatively young and limited by a lack of space. With such restricted land area, how can Japan preserve its wildlife? What kinds of grassroots efforts can help raise Japanese awareness?


Share holiday happiness with an e-greeting of wintry whooper swans.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Too many animals, too little space: It's not an uncommon problem in Japan. Consider the Japanese macaque, a natural treasure and winter spectacle. These monkeys are famous for their cultural transmission behavior (young monkeys learn from their elders novel kinds of behaviors, from grooming techniques to food preparation) and for living farther north than any other primate except humans. Some 110,000 live in Japan, 7,000 of them in the cold, snowy alps of Honshu, where they have earned the moniker "snow monkey."

The hundreds of snow monkeys I encountered one cold day in February occupy a special refuge at Jigokudani, or Hell's Valley, so-named for its steep mountain slopes and natural hot springs. The path to Jigokudani winds along a snowy slope above the steaming Yokoyu River. A half hour or so into the woods and the monkeys begin to appear, playing in the trees, sunning themselves high on the southern slopes of the gorge. One young monkey climbs a tree, grabs a branch, hangs from it by one foot, drops, rolls, climbs the tree again. Another takes a small snowball, then rolls it along the ground the way a child builds the head of a snowman. At the edge of the river half a dozen monkeys soak in a large stone hot tub built especially for them, with their arms dangling over the edges, their faces bright red from the heat. All are awaiting their noon feeding.

Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to watch the macaques, especially in winter. To help keep the monkeys in the area, the park staff feeds them several times a day and has done so for 40 years. When the feeding started, the troop numbered 23 individuals; now it has about 200.

Here and elsewhere in Japan, artificial feeding of the monkeys with "human" foods and their burgeoning numbers in populated areas have begun to cause problems. In ancient Japanese folktales, monkeys often appear as tricksters, cleverly duping other animals out of their rice ball or persimmon fruit. The macaques at Jigokudani and other spots in Japan are living up to their bad rap, raiding orchards and gardens, taking apples, prize grapes, and other crops. The situation is especially bad where expanding numbers of monkeys are moving closer to villages and growing bolder in their exploits, occasionally attacking humans and stealing food from inside houses.

Although the macaque is protected as a natural monument in some places around Japan, it still may be eliminated as a nuisance animal anywhere if the local government permits. Thousands of monkeys are either caught or killed each year nationwide because of the damage they inflict. The Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment, together with local governments, have launched a major effort to survey the status of the monkey populations and their range of movement, predict the problems of conflict that might occur, and address them with fencing and other solutions.

—Jennifer Ackerman

Did You Know?

Related Links
Japan's Ministry of the Environment
A useful site for finding basic environmental statistics about Japan.

Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology
The ministry under which Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs falls. This website describes the many cultural aspects of Japan the agency is trying to preserve.

Ainu Language
Learn how to say a few common phrases in Ainu and read a small history of the language.

Get directions on how to make origami cranes and other animals on this site. Includes listings of other origami websites.


Bird, Isabella. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. John Murray, 1880.

Brazil, Mark. A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan. Kodansha International, 1987.

Brazil, Mark. The Birds of Japan. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, and Jordi Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. 5 vols. Lynx Edicions, 1994.

Wild Bird Society of Japan. A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan. Wild Bird Society of Japan, 1982.


NGS Resources
Bornoff, Nicholas. The National Geographic Traveler: Japan. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Owston, Alan. "Forgotten Collector of Asian Animal Life," National Geographic (June 1998), Geographica.

Smith, Patrick. "Inner Japan," National Geographic (September 1994), 64-95.


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