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Media coverage of the bear problem

Media coverage of the bear usually relates not to the bear itself, but to the ‘bear problem’. Whether it be television or newspaper (radio bulletins were not surveyed), media coverage tends to focus on attacks, sightings or bear-caused damage of some sort. In newspaper coverage, the majority of relevant headlines feature one of the following words or phrases: kuma ni osoware

(attacked by a bear), shutsubotsu kyūzō (drastic increase in bear appearances), or in a

similar vein, shutsubotsu aitsugu (appearances, one after another), mokugeki

(sighting), hokaku (captured), and kuma ni chūi (beware of bears). Typical

headlines include for instance: kuma ni osoware, dansei jūtai (Man

attacked by bear, serious injuries); xx chihō de shutsubotsu ga aitsugu (Bear

(Bear appearances drastically increase in prefecture); xx de ittō hokaku (Bear captured in xx).28 Articles which concern bear research or conservation initiatives are rare, but are likely to have become significantly more common in the last several years.29

While the focus of coverage tends to be on the negative aspects of human-bear interaction, there is no longer the level of sensationalism or dramatic language used in decades past. Maita (1998) and Knight (2000b) both discuss past media coverage with headlines using such sensationalist language as

bōryoku-guma (violent bear); kyōaku hanzai no kuma (a bear of brutal

crimes); shōgai no kuma-kō shikei (public execution for injurious Mr. Bear);

hannin wo itomeru (shoot the criminal), but these articles date to 1965, and in recent years such sensationalist language is rarely used.30 Maita traces this development in the tone of media coverage of bears in the decades since the 1960s, and finds that by the late 1960s, the tone was changing: warnings about over-hunting were appearing, and by the 1970s, the human causes of the ‘bear problem’ (mainly forest destruction) were being highlighted. In the 1980s, the input of wildlife specialists was being included in articles, and coverage was becoming more factually based and less emotive.31

In 2004, a year of high incidence of bear incidents nationally, there was also a high level of media coverage of the ‘bear problem’, so much so that it was cited as one of the top ten news items by one major national newspaper, and even became an essay topic in the following year’s university entrance examinations.32 Given this high coverage, it was considered instructive to monitor and analyse the development of coverage in one major national daily newspaper, the Mainichi Shinbun, over the course of the year. The survey of newspaper articles was performed using the Mainichi Shinbun

online database. All articles containing a reference to the bear (Asiatic black bear) were selected (290 articles in total). The articles were then translated and categorised according to their content into one of four categories: ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ‘neutral’ and ‘other’. The ‘positive’ category includes articles which discuss the ecological causes of bear pestilence; reports on scientific research or conservation efforts; efforts to raise public awareness of ecological issues concerning the bear; or which include constructive advice on how to avoid human-bear conflict. The ‘negative’ category includes articles which emphasise the potential or actual danger to humans posed by bears. The ‘neutral’ category includes reports on policy or initiatives regarding management of the bear, which is largely neutral in nature; or articles which contain equal elements of both negative and positive, for example, reportage on sightings/attacks, which also examines the ecological background to the problem and conservation approaches. The ‘other’ category includes articles which do not fall into any of the above categories. This analysis was then employed to determine whether there was any

clear development in content over the course of the year and to discern patterns evident in the coverage over the year. Results are displayed in Table 4, below.

Table 4:Reportage on bears1 in Mainichi Shinbun in 2004 Type of reportage Jan–


May June July Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec Negative (sightings, attacks,

pestilence, cullings, warnings) (% of total for selected figures in brackets)

0 6 (75%) 18 (90%) 11 (92%) 20 (83%) 31 (84%) 66 (59%) 24 (42%) 4 (20%) Positive (conservation initiatives,

incl. relocations, ecological context, scientific research, awareness raising) 0 1 2 1 3 3 26 (23%) 23 (40%) 14 (70%) Neutral (policy, or ambivalent/neutral) 0 0 0 0 1 3 19 8 2

Other (bears in zoos, entertainment etc)

0 1 0 0 0 0 1 2 0

Total 0 8 20 12 24 37 112 57 20

As can be seen from the table, reportage is initially predominantly negative, focusing on bear appearances, attacks and pestilence. There is little analysis or comment on the underlying causes of the ‘bear problem’ or its ecological context. However, over the summer months, and into the autumn, bear incidents increase exponentially, reaching a peak in October. As the incidents reach unprecedented levels, the reportage begins to actively question the underlying causes of this phenomenon rather than simply reporting on it. This is reflected in the composition of articles published: from overwhelmingly ‘negative’, the tone becomes overwhelmingly ‘positive’ in December.33

Although the overall tone of most articles is serious, some articles take a more jocular tone. One reports on a bear being found ten metres up a cedar tree in the Eihei-ji temple grounds in Fukui Prefecture. The reporter observes that the bear was completely still, as though in prayer. The bear eventually climbed down the tree and escaped into the woods. The reporter observes: ‘It is said that the frequent appearances of bears in the Hokuriku region this autumn is the result of environmental changes, but perhaps this bear simply came to pay its respects to the holy founder, Monk Dōgen?’.34

Evident in the newspaper coverage is a tendency to over-simplify the causes of the ‘bear-problem’. The high level of bear incidents is correctly attributed to the poor masting of beech and oak species over a large area of Japan. However many articles suggested that this was caused, at least in part, by the large number of typhoons which afflicted Japan in 2004.35 This explanation is convenient both for its seemingly clean cause-and-effect relationship, and in that, by attributing it to climatic phenomena, it dilutes or exonerates humans from any responsibility for the situation. In other words, by perceiving the dramatic increase in bear appearances and incidences in much the same way as typhoons or other extreme weather, it has the effect of taking the phenomenon ‘outside human control’.36

While a systematic review of all articles was not conducted for the year 2006, a year of even greater bear incidents than 2004, a sampling of the year’s coverage reveals a clear change in tone in newspaper coverage. As in previous years, the majority of articles cover some kind of bear ‘incident’: a sighting, incident of pestilence or attack. However, compared to previous years, a larger proportion of these articles also highlight the cause of the high level of pestilence: i.e., a poor mast of chestnut and beech trees over a wide area of Japan.37 Unlike 2004, ‘unusual weather’ is rarely mentioned as a cause. Furthermore, many articles also outline measures to prevent attracting bears to farms or areas of human habitation, in particular, the correct disposal of crop and other organic waste. Thus, while the causes of the ‘bear problem’ are not dissipating, and in fact, judging from the statistics for 2006, the problem appears to be worsening, there is a much wider recognition, in the media at least, of the causes and means to prevent bear pestilence and attacks.