If you are interested in wolves, the mechanics of extinction, or the relationship of the Japanese people to the environment, this is a fascinating read. The spiritual and cultural relationship between the Japanese wolf and the Japanese people is explored in this well-written volume. Illustrations enhance the text, and the author's own experiences with wolves in the American west are relevant and provide a contrast to his experiences researching the history of the disappearance of wolves and wild dogs in Japan.
We don’t always get the book we expect. I expected Walker’s book to be something like the 1880 classic “British Animals Extinct Within Historic Times”, in which J. E. Harting bemoans the disappearance “beyond recall” of wild boars, bears, and wolves. (He was wrong: wild boars are back in Great Britain, and there is talk of reintroducing the wolf.) In lively writing Harting describes the animals, their range and habits, humans’ wars against them, and accounts of both real and legendary last individuals. He never blames anyone but the British for wiping out their large animals.
Walker takes a different tack. Reading like a 1993 term paper for an environmental studies class, blame for the demise of Japanese wolves is laid almost entirely on the West. This relies on the easy answer that modern humans – and especially modern humans viewed as “technological” – are solely responsible for extinctions and other environmental catastrophes. And yet we know that pre-industrial societies, especially on islands, destroyed countless species. Island-like Australia began loosing its large animals as soon as humans arrived 50,000 years ago; animals on Hawaii, New Zealand, and other Pacific Islands were driven to extinction by Polynesians, Melanesians, and other peoples; most large British animals were wiped out during the Neolithic Era, and nearly all of the rest before the Middle Ages had passed.
Comparing Britain and Japan would be interesting – the British, living on an archipelago slightly smaller than Japan, and with less rugged terrain, were able to wipe out their wolves more than a century before the Japanese managed to kill off theirs. But Walker makes no mention of any other extinctions, and again takes the easy route of complaining about the “progress” that took Japan’s top predators. In fact, wolves weren’t Japan’s top predators – tigers and leopards were. And today, well into the 21st Century, tigers and leopards persist almost with sight of Hokkaido, just across the Sea of Japan in Russia. Why don’t they live in Japan? They don’t live in Japan because the early Japanese, or more likely the ancestors of the Ainu, either directly or indirectly killed every last one. That was long before the utilization of anti-predator strychnine and industrial cattle ranching.
Walker almost addresses the dearth of wildness in pre-industrial Japan. He speculates that Japan’s crows – the large-billed crow and the carrion crow – might have followed wolf packs, or led them to their prey. Bernd Heinrich has shown how ravens might do that, and how there might be something to the traditional association between ravens and wolves. But that association has never been attributed to smaller crows, and Walker’s speculation seems wishful thinking. Regardless, his musings acknowledge that ravens are rare in Japan, even though they are plentiful just to the north, and in relative wilderness of Asia, Africa, and North America that lie in latitudes far south of Japan’s. As with the tiger and leopard there seems to be no reason for ravens not to live in Japan, other than a lack of wild spaces and uninviting humans.
Another suggestion of a denuded, pre-industrial Japan is Walker’s search for the true identity of the Japanese wolf – was it a feral dog? But here again the analysis is irksome and does nothing to convince the reader. The best example in history of a dog that took on a truly wild state is the Australian dingo. But the dingo is mentioned only once, in passing.
Much of the book is devoted to the Japanese reverence for the wolf, which also paints a strange picture. The famously insular Japanese abandoned a sacred animal simply because the West didn’t care for wolves? Why didn’t they also adopt Christianity, if they were so bent on imitating the West? Yes, the Japanese adopted Western ways and technology during the Meiji era, but there is no doubt that they picked and chose what they thought appropriate.
And here again we can compare environmental ideals in Japan and the West. While the simplistic take is that the West is single-handedly destroying the planet, in the case of preserving mega fauna – and in particular predators – the West actually seems ahead. Wolves are returning to parts of Europe where they’d been extinct for centuries. Wolves have been reintroduced to the American West and even into North Carolina. Yes, these reintroductions are opposed by many, but significant enthusiasm for wolves among the entire population has made the reintroductions possible. And the century-long rural depopulation that came with industrial agriculture and industrial ranching provided enough open space.
Japan is also experiencing rural depopulation. The Japanese could reintroduce wolves any time they want, and yet they haven’t bothered. If their reverence for nature is so great, why not take it a step further, and reintroduce globally threatened tigers and leopards? Again, it seems the Japanese are essentially shrugging at the loss of large animals, and it’s hard to imagine that only a few generations ago they thought any differently.
This is not to single out the Japanese as any more anti-environment than most societies throughout history, but it shows that the simplistic tale of the West as the sole enemy of the planet is not backed up by facts. Unfortunately, it seems that “The Lost Wolves of Japan” relies on this discredited idea.