Two people did not survive the confrontation with a bear. The circumstances of a third case, a missing fisherman on Hokkaido, the northernmost island, have not been established, but a bear was seen near the fishing spot dragging waders in its mouth. Later the fisherman’s head was found in the lake.
If the Ussuri bear and the Asiatic black bear – the most common bears in Japan – continue at this rate, they will break the record of 158 injuries from bear attacks in 2020. Japanese biologists see a link between this ‘extraordinary’ increase and last year’s baby boom, when bears benefited from an abundance of acorns and beechnuts in nature. According to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun There are currently 44,000 black bears in Japan, almost three times as many as the 15,000 individuals in 2012. The Ussuri brown bear population has more than doubled since the 1990s to 11,700 individuals.
This year there is less food for more bears. Previously, Japanese people who searched for bamboo shoots and other edible plants in the forests were mainly attacked by bears, but now the animals also venture into built-up areas in search of food before going into hibernation in December.
Loose in the city
Bear attacks have been reported in fifteen of Japan’s 47 prefectures, especially in the north of the main island of Honshu and on Hokkaido. In Akita Prefecture, where bears have struck 52 times this year, a bear attacked six people in one day in a residential area last month, including a schoolgirl at a bus stop and an elderly woman in a shopping street.
In Iwate Prefecture, where a man found a bear in his garage, more than half of the victims were attacked in or near their homes. Remarkably, a fifth of the victims there were wearing a so-called bear bell at the time of the attack. Because the sound apparently does not deter the animals, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK recommends the use of pepper spray. Conservationists have suggested stockpiling acorns and nuts in remote mountain areas so the bears don’t have to go poaching.
Another solution is to shoot, but this is more difficult. That’s a job for experienced bear hunters with special weapons permits. The authorities are increasingly calling on these hunters, but there are not many of them. Due to the aging of Japan’s population, this profession is slowly dying out, while the bureaucratic red tape required for a gun license prevents a new generation from following in the footsteps of older bear hunters.