Almost the size of California and composed of over 6,800 different islands with land two-thirds’ mountains and thick forests, Japan is home to a unique group of animals. It has a wide range of biodiversity thanks to the islands stretching from the cold wintry lands of Hokkaido to the subtropical Ryukyu islands. Over 90,000 different species of wildlife live in this small stretch of land. Below are the top five animals unique to Japan!
The Japanese pheasant is the bird of Japan and is endemic to the area, meaning it only lives in Japan. Roosters looks similar to peacocks in terms of color and their bright green breasts are the reason they’re also called the “green pheasant.” The hens, on the other hand, are much duller in color–spotted brown—like most female birds. But what makes these hens special is that they will adopt stray chicks. The Japanese pheasant is best known to the average Japanese person for traveling alongside a monkey and dog in the famous folktale Momotaro (Peach Boy), helping Momotaro to defeat the demons plaguing the country.
The crane is a ubiquitous part of Japanese culture. It’s a symbol of good luck, longevity and fidelity. It commonly appears in traditional and modern Japanese artwork and was featured on the 1,000 yen note (cranes are said to live for 1,000 years). A famous folktale called Tsuru no Ongaeshi (“Crane’s Return of a Favor”) tells the story of a poor man who helps an injured crane and is then repaid by the crane plucking its own feathers to help weave the man beautiful cloth. As such, it’s believed that if you help a crane then it will repay you for your kindness. The Japanese crane is a mostly non-migratory species and doesn’t travel very far from home. They’re considered an endangered species so you’re very fortunate to see one in the wild.
The Japanese macaque is known across the globe for being featured in the “three wise monkeys” (representing the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”). It is also known as the “snow monkey” because it lives in the most northern and snowiest regions of Japan—apart from Hokkaido. They are very happy in these cold regions and the only non-human primate willing to live so far north. They like to roll snowballs for fun and even bathe in the natural hot springs found all across Japan to keep warm in the winter. They’re extremely intelligent and have been known to use ocean water to both clean and season their food. Visitors to Arashiyama Monkey Park in Kyoto can get an up-close encounter to these primates and even feed them!
The largest population of sika deer in the world live in Japan and they’re classified as a national treasure. They were once considered sacred and killing one was a capital offense up until 1637. Nowadays, hunting a sika deer takes a great deal of skill. Unlike most deer, which run when encountering danger, the sika deer lies down flat and hides itself. Some of the best places in Japan to see sika deer are in the Kansai region, including Nara Park and Miyajima Island. There they roam free, intermingling with the locals and showing little fear around people. Visitors can buy special crackers (called “shika-senbei”) to feed the deer.
The tanuki is commonly called the “raccoon dog,” although it’s more closely related to a dog than a raccoon. Tanuki often appear in Japanese folklore and are well-known as tricksters and shapeshifters, much like foxes. However, tanuki are said to shapeshift in order to fool people. They enjoy playing jokes on others but are also considered very gullible. When in Japan, you’re more likely to encounter statues of a tanuki rather than the actual animal, which are very shy and nocturnal. These statues often appear outside bars and restaurants and share similar appearances, representing the eight lucky traits of a tanuki. They’re easily recognizable by their straw hats, large bellies, oversized scrotum, and a welcoming smile. Gripped in each hand is a sake flask and promissory note, symbols of trust and virtue.
On your next trip to Japan, be on the lookout for these special animals. Each holds a special place in both traditional Japanese culture and modern society. They are unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else on Earth!