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Bears in ‘lowland’ culture: the araguma

The Japanese literary and visual arts are renowned for their frequent use of motifs and images from nature. Trees, flowers, birds, insects and, to a lesser extent, animals such as deer, monkeys and rabbits often appear in poetry, prose and paintings, but larger animals such as wolves and bears rarely appear. In fact, some commentators on Japanese art and culture appear to deny the very existence of bears, as was noted in Chapter One.1 When the bear does appear in arts and literature, the imagery employed provides insight into how the bear was viewed by the predominantly agrarian and urban populace of pre-modern Japan.

Firstly turning to poetry: to the Heian Japanese, poetry-making was not limited to an elite group of professional poets. It was an essential social skill for all literate members of society—a form of communication and entertainment employed in every-day life by members of high society. However, a survey of poetry collections from the Heian Period (A.D. 794–1185), from which many of the major historical poetry collections date, reveals only a small number of poems with references to the bear. For example, in the Manyōshū (the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry, compiled A.D.

744–759), there is one poem referring to the bear. In comparison, there are a few hundred poems which refer to birds, and about 70 poems which mention deer or stags in this anthology. Even wild boar are mentioned several times.

The text of the Manyōshū poem referencing the bear reads:


On Mt. Shihase, where bears are said to live, even were I to be pressed, I would not reveal your name.3

According to Kojima et al (1973), the author in this case is a woman, who despite being repeatedly asked by her mother, refuses to tell her the name of her lover.4 The whereabouts of Mt Shihase is unknown, but it is referred to in other poems of this period also.

In other Heian Period collections, such as the Shūiwakashū (the third imperial anthology of classical Japanese poetry probably completed between A.D. 1005 and 1007), the bear fares no better. One poem referring to the bear appears in Book Seven of this collection:


Since I have abandoned the world for the life of a mountain ascetic, I think not about being eaten by (the) bears.

The author is a Buddhist monk who is a head-priest of a mountain temple. The phrase ‘I think not about being eaten by bears’ may be an allusion to a Buddhist legend in which Buddha was eaten by a tiger. 6

The bear makes a few more appearances in an anthology called Fubokuwakashō ,

published in A.D. 1310. Many poems which were not included in the earlier imperial anthologies, but were otherwise regarded as ‘worthy’, were published in this anthology. The bear features in several poems, including the following:

Even the bear, which lives deep in the mountains, feels love—it cares for its children with affection.

Ah, my hut made of brushwood, so far from the capital, beside the valley where bears live.

Even the evergreen of the yuzuriha plant is concealed on the snow-covered mountain where bears live (like the undying love we do not reveal in this rough world).7

My eyes are surely not becoming blurred with tears at the moon’s halo, like the tsukinowa of the bear which lives in the mountains.8

The bear of the wilderness of Suga, knowing nothing of man, looks blankly at the hunter’s arrow.

And a variation of this poem:

Yanosaki, where there are the wild bears of the wilderness in Suga and where people are not known, likewise seems to pretend not to know [me].

How damp are my sleeves [with tears] for fear of the bears that inhabit the wilderness of Suga in Shinano!

Nobody passes by. They/I/you did not submit to fear, in the mountains of mossy rock inhabited by bears!

One significant aspect of the poems above is that few refer to a direct fear of the bear itself. Certainly, the bear was clearly considered ‘wild’, as demonstrated by the appellation for the bear employed in most poems (araguma , literally ‘wild bear’). But there are no references to attacks by the bear (except for the allusion to being eaten, which is probably not to be taken literally, but is rather an analogy to the Chinese example of the priest being eaten by a tiger). Instead, the majority refer to the bear as a lonely inhabitant of the remote okuyama, a realm of nature towards which there is a sense of unease, and perhaps even fear, owing to its remoteness, wildness and loneliness. A sense of empathy

Figure 24: Kintaro ‘riding’ a bear, by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825)

is also possible for this solitary okuyama-dweller (the okuyama being a place where no right-minded city-dweller would want to live).

As noted, these Manyōshū and Fubokuwakashō poems frequently use the term araguma, meaning ‘wild bear’, to refer to the bear.9 This term was still being used as an appellation for the bear in 1712,

when Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724) wrote a play called Komochi yamauba , based on

the Kintarō folktale, in which there are the following lines:

Grabbing the bear (araguma) by its leg, [Kintaro] twirls it around, and hurls it a few metres,

Then, resting on his mother’s knee, says ‘Oh, I’m tired—I want to drink mother’s milk’.10

It is unclear what conclusions should be drawn from the use of the term araguma—it could simply be that it is a set phrase traditionally employed in narrative literature (much like the English example, ‘the sly fox’).11 Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the bear was associated with the state of being ‘wild’ (araarashii ). This is supported by the fact that any references to the bear are frequently made in association with the okuyama, to the

extent that the usage of the term (araguma) almost appears to be metonymical for this geographical realm. There may even be an etymological connection between bears (kuma) and okuyama: one of the readings for the Chinese character for oku (‘deep’) is kuma. When read in this way, it means ‘a place where a river goes deep [into the mountains]’.12Oku in this sense is synonymous with kuma , which means ‘a place deep in the mountains, or where a river/stream goes deep [into the mountains]’, and was often substituted with kuma (bear) in place names.13

Turning now to historical literature, a survey of representative works reveals that there is similarly relatively little written about the bear. One of the earliest mentions of the bear is in one episode in

mythology of Japan. The entry relates an episode in which ‘unruly deities’ of the Kumano mountains appear in the form of a large bear and cast a spell over Jinmu Tennō (the putative founding ancestor of the Japanese imperial line) and his men. Jinmu Tennō slays the bear, and the spell is lifted.14 Sekiguchi (2006) suggests that this episode relates to Jinmu Tennō’s conquest of ‘eastern’ Japan:15 the unruly deities which appear in the form of the bear represent the people of the Kumano region who resisted his conquest.16 Parenthetically, the place in which the bear appears, Kumano , located in the present-day Wakayama Prefecture, literally means ‘bear plain’, though the no in this case probably refers to ‘natural grasslands’, as the area is mountainous.17

There is one further reference to the bear in the Kojiki (and the later Nihonshoki , completed in A.D. 720), though only in the context of the etymology of the name of a region/people. However, this instance may nevertheless reinforce the idea that the bear was associated with unruliness and rebelliousness by the Yamato Japanese. Episodes in the Kojiki refer to the conquering of two brothers of the ‘Kumaso tribe’ (rendered in Japanese manyōgana, or phonetic representation, variously as ,

, and ): in Emperor Keiko’s words, ‘…unsubmissive, disrespectful people.’18

Nakamura (1985) suggests that the character for bear was an appropriate choice for a people who consistently rebelled against the Yamato forces, signifying the characteristics of ‘bravery’ and ‘rebel/insurgent’.19

Altogether, there are eight references to the bear in the ‘Six National Histories’ (Rikkokushi , the six official histories commissioned by the Imperial government, which began with Nihonshoki). References relate mainly to bear skins (used as mats on which to sit), which were highly valued items reserved for guests of honour.20 However, it appears unlikely that these skins were derived from the Asiatic black bear: in the three examples found in Book II of Nihonshoki, Aston (1972, first published 1896) suggests that these are references to either polar bears or brown bears.21

Asiatic black bears are repeatedly referred to in Fudoki (a collection of cultural and geographical information relating to the Japanese provinces, compiled in the eighth century). Bear references appear in the records relating to Harima province (the south-western region of present-day Hyōgo Prefecture) and Izumo province, (the eastern part of present-day Shimane Prefecture), often in conjunction with wolves.22 The references appear to relate to places inhabited by the bear, but the inventory-like nature of the references means that it is not possible to interpret anything from them in respect to the way in which the bear was perceived by the compilers of the records.23

The bear also appears in a number of encyclopaedia-type reference works. The earliest such example is an entry for the bear in the Wamyōruijūshō , a Chinese-Japanese dictionary compiled by Minamoto no Shitagu around 934.24 The entry notes that the wamyō , or Japanese name for bear, is (the manyōgana for ‘kuma’) and notes: ‘It resembles a brown bear (of Hokkaidō) but is smaller’.25

Several centuries later, in the Edo Period (A.D. 1615–1868), the bear appears more frequently in reference works. Examples of the use of bear parts and meat in cooking

and medicine appear in the Honchōshokukagami , an encyclopaedia of plants and animals

used for foods and medicines) published in 1697.26 There is an entry on the bear in Wakansansaizue

, an illustrated encyclopaedia published in 1712.27 The entry states: ‘It [the bear] has a crescent-moon shaped white patch of fur on its chest. Referred to as tsuki no wa in colloquial Japanese. It always tries to cover this with its paw [because] this is what the hunters aim for. If the bear is hit here it is killed.’28Yamatohonzō , a seminal study of Japanese plants published in 1708 and authored by Japanese Neo-Confucianist and botanist Kaibara Ekiken, contained a similar

entry.29 An entry on bears also appears in Kojiruien , a government-sponsored

encyclopaedia published between 1896 and 1913.30 The entry states of the bear: ‘owing to its black coat, [the word] kuma is associated with black, and so the word is used to name things which also have black bodies, such as kuma-zemi [a type of cicada], kuma-bachi [a type of hornet] and so on’.31

It is worth noting that the reference to tsuki no wa [guma] is absent in the earlier reference in the

Wamyōruijūshō where the bear is simply referred to as kuma. It appears from the entry in the

Wakansansaizue that the appellation tsuki no waguma was derived from colloquial Japanese, and, judging from the reference to hunting, probably from colloquialisms used in upland communities. It is unclear when this appellation entered into standard Japanese.

Turning to fictional works, the bear appears in the Edo Period work Tōyūki (Journey to the East), in which a scene of two hunters attempting to kill a bear in its den is depicted.32 The bear is also

mentioned in Suzuki Bokushi’s Hokuetsu seppu (Annals of snow in the

Hokuetsu region), a collection of essays written about Echigo Province (present-day Niigata Prefecture) published between 1836 and 1842. One story which appears in these essays more than once is of a bear helping a man who falls into its den. The author apparently heard this story from an elderly man who claimed to have had this unusual experience himself.33

There are numerous folktales in Japan which, like those of other countries, feature animals behaving as if they were humans. These tales were mainly told for their entertainment value but many are also intended to be morally instructive. Compared to other mammals such as the fox, raccoon dog (tanuki)

and monkey, the bear appears less frequently in folktales, and when it does, it is usually not as a central character in the story.34 Additionally, when it does feature, it is often as a character which is interchangeable with other animals, depending on the particular version of the tale. For example, the bear features in some versions of trickster type tales (hito bōon in Japanese), in which a man is saved by another man or an animal, but then sets out to deceive or harm the animal or human which helped him.35 In Shippo no tsuri (tail-fishing ), a monkey/rabbit/bear is deceived by an otter/fox/badger/crab into fishing with its tail, the result of which is that its tail is frozen in ice and comes off (thereby explaining the reason why the monkey/rabbit/bear only has a short tail). In

Kachikachi yama (Kachikachi mountain), a tanuki/bear/wolf/monkey or other animal plays the role of a trickster who is eventually outwitted by a rabbit.36Kitsune to kuma (The fox and the bear), is one of the few tales in which the bear appears as a central character and is not interchangeable with other animals. In this tale, the bear is deceived repeatedly by the fox, until the fox dies while trying to capture a horse.37 The bear also features in the popular Japanese folktale called Kintarō, (which is the subject of both Utagawa’s prints, and of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s play mentioned above) about a boy born to a yamuaba (mountain witch) on Mount Ashigara. The boy is born with supernatural strength, and one of his exploits is his ability to wrestle with bears and other beasts.38

Because in most cases the bear features in a role in which other animals appear interchangeably, it is difficult to draw any conclusions from these folktales in respect to how the bear was perceived historically. However, the fact that the bear appears far less frequently than more common animal characters such as the monkey, raccoon-dog, rabbit or fox may indicate that the bear featured less prominently in the consciousness of the Japanese. This also concurs with Kitamura’s suggestion, discussed in the previous chapter, that the Japanese are more comfortable with the realm of the

satoyama, and the creatures which inhabit it, as opposed to creatures inhabiting the realm of the

okuyama, such as the wolf or the bear. Incidentally, in these folktales, creatures which inhabit nature closer to human-settlement (satoyama), such as rabbits or raccoon dogs, are most common. (It should be further noted that, as far as the author is aware, there are no instances of the serow, a highly elusive creature which inhabits higher altitude mountain terrain, featuring in a traditional folktale. This may be said to corroborate the stronger place of satoyama and its creatures in the cultural consciousness of the Japanese.)

Bears are rarely the subject of visual art. One of the few pictures depicting bears is one by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861). A colour woodblock print completed in 1849, it depicts one of Minamoto Yoshitsune’s retainers, Kamei Rokurō (Shigekiyo) making his debut by fighting a black bear in the snow, watched by Yoshitsune and other retainers (Figure 25).39 Another picture by the same artist, produced in 1860, is of Kaidō Maru the childhood name of Sakata no Kintoki

, on whom the folktale Kintaro was based, who later became a retainer of samurai Minamoto Yorimitsu. In the picture, Kaidō Maru is depicted by a waterfall wielding a large axe, with his foot on the head of a prostrate bear-cub.40 What is notable about these pictures (as it is with the Utagawa Toyokuni print in Figure 24), is that the bears depicted resemble more closely the tigers depicted in Chinese-style prints of this and earlier eras (note especially the shape of the head, the long whiskers, the long limbs and relatively long and thin body) than the Asiatic black bear. This suggests that these artists had little idea what the bear actually looked like, and instead painted it using Chinese paintings as a model (as was the case with other animals), or possibly, animal skins.

In contrast to its relatively low profile in the arts and literature, the character (kuma) features relatively commonly in place names or family names. Before examining this aspect further, and given the importance of the etymology of Chinese characters (kanji) to the meaning they carry and therefore their usage, a brief outline of the etymology of the character used to represent the Japanese word for bear (kuma) is important. As with other characters, the character for kuma originated in China. The character is a composite meaning, made up of , meaning ‘capacity’ or ‘to enhance’ and , meaning ‘fire’, and made reference to the fact that the flesh of the bear, which is thick with fat, burns well. Thus, the Chinese word yūyū , written using the characters for bear, referred to a fire burning vigorously. In ancient China, the bear was thought to be an animal representing fire.41 This association with fire appears to have weakened since the character was adopted by the Japanese: there are no references to this association in the Japanese literature as far as the present author is aware. The

kanji is used both in the Kojiki text and in the Manyōshū poem noted earlier, indicating that this character was used to express the word for bear from the early eighth century at least.

Figure 25: Yoshitsune kōshin: shitennō shusse kagami no uchi, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Source: Stirling (ed.) )

As regards the use of the kanji for kuma (bear) in people and place names, in O’Neill’s Japanese Names (1972), 45 place-names, family-names and first-names are listed which begin with kuma.42 In comparison, 58 name are listed beginning with shika (deer), 41 are listed beginning with the character for inoshishi (wild boar), and 33 are listed beginning with the character for horse. Names beginning with the characters for fox and wolf only number three and two respectively. Of course, this comparison is only indicative of usage: in some areas, certain animal names have been used more