In April 1982, I began writing a column for The Japan Times newspaper, it was to be about the natural history, the wildlife, of this fascinating archipelago. I called that column about wild Japan Wild Watch. Twenty-nine years later, I continue to write the column and continue to cover topics relating to natural history and the environment here. My column is, I have been told, the longest published natural history column in any newspaper worldwide. Over the years I have also written articles, papers and books on a wide range of natural history, birding and travel topics relating to Japan and Asia. Japan is a fantastic country in which to watch birds and mammals against a backdrop of some spectacular scenery.
The Japanese archipelago, stretching from Hokkaido in the north to Yonaguni in the southwest, supports astonishing biodiversity. Roughly comparable in size to both the British Isles and New Zealand, and somewhat similarly located in a largely temperate region situated off a major continent, Japan nevertheless supports very much more biodiversity than either Britain or New Zealand. Some species are restricted just to Japan, such as the endemic Japanese Squirrel and the endemic Japanese Serow, others, such as the Eurasian Red Squirrel, range all the way from Britain to Japan.
A wonderful country with a rich and ancient culture, it is also a marvelous place for naturalists. Throughout the year the range of species to look for is quite astonishing, from endemic birds and mammals of the main islands to endemic species of the Nansei Shoto, Izu and Bonin islands, alongside a tremendous diversity of Palaearctic and Oriental species.
Behind the façade of development, outside the bounds of the metropolitan areas, and beyond the supposed homogeneity of the Japanese people there is another wilder Japan.
Common images of Japan involve shiny cars, the latest electronic goods, and regimented ranks of commuters in business suits. Japan is, after all, an intensely developed country with a population pushing 127 million. The Japanese people’s belief in their homogeneity is an interesting one, not supported by observation, and their reputation as “loving nature” is a surprising one when one travels the length and breadth of an archipelago showing few signs of that “love”. Yet, behind the facade of development, outside the bounds of the metropolitan areas, and beyond the supposed homogeneity there is another wilder Japan.
Siberian Flying Squirrel
Wild Japan is astonishingly diverse, and the reasons, though apparent, are little known amongst those who travel the standard tourist circuit of this ancient country. Another myth is that Japan is a small country. It is, in fact, larger than either Britain or New Zealand, and almost exactly the same size as Germany. But Japan’s most significant feature is that it is not just an island country, but a country of islands. Situated where the Oriental and the Temperate regions meet, Japan is situated on a significant natural history cross-roads.
The northern island of Hokkaido has a sub-Arctic feel, while in the far south, the Nansei Islands lie within the sub-tropical zone. In between, there exists just about every habitat that one could imagine, from coastal wetlands to high alpine meadows. Past lowering of sea levels connected the Japanese Islands to the Asian continent in three places, via Sakhalin, via the Korean Peninsula, and via Taiwan.
These land bridges allowed mammals to cross into what later became islands as the sea levels rose again. As a result, some of Japan’s more than 150 mammal species, such as the Asiatic Black Bear and the Badger, are widespread across Asia, while others, such as the Japanese Dormouse, are unique to these islands.