Japan’s northern bear hunters: Matagi, a culture co-existing with nature

Little known even to Japanese nationals, Matagi have been struggling to conserve their traditional customs. 🏹

4 mins
Written by:
Eli Sooker

Tucked deep in the isolated mountain valleys of Japan’s harsh northern countryside, a 400-year-old culture of traditional hunters, farmers and mountain people remain: the Matagi.

Little known even to Japanese nationals, Matagi have been struggling to conserve their traditional customs among a changing Japanese society. With their entire population estimated at a mere 200 (as of 2020) and consisting mostly of retirees, the precious knowledge that once subsisted a sustainable way of living off the land is becoming increasingly scarcer as these elders pass away.  

Matagi’s struggle started with the progress of global biodiversity loss, which led to stricter conservation laws in Japan and the rest of the world. Although conservation itself is a positive thing, adequate space was not provided for the minority culture to thrive despite the changes.

Matagi first relied on serow (a goat/antelope-like creature) as a source of food and income, but once they became a protected species, bears became their new target. The gall bladders of bears are known for their potent medicinal properties, and were sold to provide income during the long winter period when growing vegetables was not an option. They also served as a lifeline for anyone who got ill, as hospitals were inaccessible in the isolated mountain regions where Matagi lived.

Nowadays, although the populations that Matagi hunt are suspected to be increasing, Asian black bear populations are decreasing in other regions within Japan and overseas, leading to the species’ overall status as ‘Threatened’. This has seen a ban on Matagi hunting get introduced in all but a few places. Many Matagi have thus been forced to give up their hunting customs and seek other means of living.

Despite this, Matagi hunting was – and in places it is still able to be carried out – is always conducted with deep respect for nature and with care not to hunt more than is needed. Their traditional bear-hunting method involves climbing the mountain in the early spring, when the land is still waist-deep in snow in places, and bears are just waking up from hibernation.

Asian black bears stand out clear as day on the white snowy background, and make for easier hunting among what are severely tough conditions. Matagi hunt as a group and by using their knowledge of the terrain, corner the bear and slaughter it with traditional tools such as longbows and knives (these days, guns are the tool of choice and cause less pain to the animal). After bringing the bear down the mountain by sliding it atop the snow, a ritual is performed to thank the mountain god for a successful hunt.

As modern-day Matagi continue to struggle with tight laws around hunting and an aging population, a small but determined handful of young people have taken up the challenge of training to become the next generation of Matagi and continue these traditions.

While the modern world spins further and further into the advances of technology and away from a lifestyle in harmony with nature, it only makes sense that the younger generation have recognised the relevance of Matagi today. In fact, we may all have something to learn from Matagi culture. Recently, many Matagi have begun sharing their culture with outsiders in an effort to conserve their traditions.

Next time you’re in Japan, why not take the opportunity to learn more about this way of life? Along the way, you’ll be supporting a minority culture to uphold its traditions and sustainable relationship to the Earth.

Although Matagi exist in a number of regions, the area most famous for showcasing Matagi culture is Ani region in Kitaakita City, Akita Prefecture. Most of the below recommendations are from Ani, making a trip to learn about and experience Matagi culture easy and convenient, while still being a good way off the beaten track.

Note that efforts to promote Matagi culture are still new and most lack English guidance, but these days, translation apps and online web browser translator functions to navigate websites make crossing language boundaries less of a challenge! Of course, hiring a personal translator or travel agent is also an option for some.

Ani-Kawabe Matagi Museum

This place is a must first stop in order to learn about Matagi in greater depth. With an audio tour available in English, Matagi Museum showcases various Matagi artifacts, tools, and hunting equipment, while guiding visitors on their lifestyle, beliefs, and practices through interactive displays and exhibitions.

Utto Hot Spring

Take a bath in the same hot spring as Matagi after a long day’s travel, which is located in the same building as the Matagi Museum. You can choose to either use the hot spring only, or stay the night at their ryokan (traditional inn). Depending on the season, you may even have the chance to eat bear meat at their restaurant, which is also available to day-trippers.

Oriyamake Guest House

While staying at Matagi-run accommodation, immerse yourself in a range of activities related to Matagi lifestyle including hare-trapping, wild vegetable picking, wild meat BBQing, snow-shoeing and tracking animals via sensor camera. Activities such as mochi making and star-gazing are also available.

Kuma Kuma En (Bear Garden)

While the conditions of many zoos in Japan tend to be cruel and disappointing, at this wildlife park, the bears are well looked after (though the enclosures are still too small). Take comfort in the owner being a bear lover himself and using the park as a means to get people to think about co-existence with bears, an ever-pressing issue in modern Japan. Of course, the relationship between bears and Matagi is highlighted as well.

Matagi Nature Guides

Both Mt Moriyoshi in the Ani region and World Heritage area Shirakami Sanchi, several hours north of Ani, are sacred sites for Matagi. There, you have options to take a tour or hike with a deeply knowledgeable Matagi nature guide. Although guidance will be in Japanese, if you are curious to meet and hear directly from one of these nature experts and are willing to cope with or find ways to counter potential language barriers, get in touch here and here.

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