On Mount Mitsumine in Oku-Chichibu, some 1,000 metres above sea level and surrounded by forest, is Mitsumine-Jinja – the most famous wolf shrine in Japan. The wolf in Japanese folklore is a powerful presence but, unlike in traditions elsewhere, it is a benign figure revered as a messenger of the spirits, a protector of crops from deer and wild boar, and a guardian. The wolf was believed to escort lone travellers through the forest at night to the safety of their homes, to protect the poor and vulnerable, and to have the power of prophecy. It was even said to leave part of its prey for villagers for which, in return, they would leave offerings for the wolf. In death the teeth, hide and skulls of wolves were used as talismans to ward off evil and provide protection from danger. In Japan the wolf is animal and spirit and, at Mitsumine-jinja, stone. At this Shinto shrine, founded around 2,000 years ago the stone statues of wolves sit silently, weather-worn, mottled with lichen and dressed in bibs as visitors bow and leave offerings
Running through the heart of Honshu, the main island of Japan, mountain ranges covered in thick forest dominate the landscape. Japan is a densely populated country but these areas still seem largely untouched by humans. These mountainous forests are home to populations of monkeys, wild boar, foxes, serow, deer and bears, and although some of these populations are now reduced, or in the case of the Asiatic black bear critically endangered, this is still a dauntingly untamed environment. Only last year four people were killed by bears in the northern mountainous region.
Only last year four people were killed by bears in the northern mountainous region.
These wild, remote mountains were also once the home of the Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) an animal of such distinct appearance that arguments have been made to classify it as a unique species. Small in size, just over a foot tall at the shoulder, and with shorter legs in relation to its compact body than most other wolves, it had short wiry hair and was said to look more like a dog than its grey wolf relatives. It was once a common sight and people in rural areas were very familiar with the wolf that they revered rather than feared. It is officially recorded as becoming extinct in 1905, due to a variety of factors including an epidemic of rabies. Since that time this has been called in to question with many reported sightings in remote areas. In 1910 an animal was shot and killed in Fukui prefecture which was said to closely resemble the Honshu wolf. In 1936 a villager claimed to have captured a wolf cub but then released it, and through the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s encounters continued to be reported. In 1998 a number of sightings were recorded in Chichibu, the area around Mitsumine-Jinja, and in 2000 Satoshi Nishida took a series of photographs of what appeared to be a Honshu wolf in Kyushu.
Do any of these real wolves still live, hidden away in the depths of the forest? Or are they only alive in our memory, an image conjured in legend and stone?
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.