The dramatic fall in tourism in Japan due to pandemic restrictions has caused problems for Nara deer. These animals reside in popular tourist attraction, Nara Park. Without tourists to partake in the novelty of feeding crackers, the deer are denied a stable food source. Some appear emaciated. Having to seek food elsewhere, deer wandered into the city. They graze on shrubs, thereby destroying greenery. As they are accustomed to coexisting with humans, some deer are emboldened to run across roads and enter subway stations, disrupting city life. Locals hope that tourists will return to Nara soon to feed the deer and alleviate these issues (O’Connell. 2020).
Image Taken by Elaine in 2015
This article caught our attention as it demonstrates blurred interactions between humans and animals in Japan and the implications of such relationships. On the surface, visitors see a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship between man and animal, where man gets entertainment and economic profits, while deer gets food. This is a mirage that we will soon assist in dissipating.
In the first place, we believe the problem of starving deer should not even exist. Nara deer are traditionally believed to be national treasures and supposedly revered by locals, necessitating conservation. Yet, the lack of food for the deer depicts the conflicting relationship that Japan has with these animals. Different stakeholders (namely: government, locals, tourists) have different aims as to how Nara deer should be managed. The state protection of deer had been tentatively accepted by the other stakeholders. However, this implicit agreement is not without the condition of profit.
Nara deer serve as a tourist attraction, a commodity for revenue by both locals and government. The tourists are mainly driven by self-indulgence of the novelty of interacting with the “seemingly” tamed deer. The locals benefit from the influx of tourism as a way to make money – without tourists, they have little incentive to care for deer. This can be seen by locals hoping for tourists to return (O’Connell. 2020), rather than feeding the deer themselves and preventing them from reaching starvation. The government aims to preserve the perceived cultural heritage of Nara Park through legal protection of deer. This can be seen in restrictions on culling, where locals are not allowed to manage the increasing population without permits (Otake. 2016). The resultant overwhelming population of 1500 deer has become unsustainable without human intervention to feed them. The deer, in search of food for survival, have no choice but to venture outside of Nara Park. This would lead to rising tensions between the deer and locals as a result of property damage, traffic jams and injuries. These inconveniences remain relatively unseen in the eyes of visitors.
The problems faced by the deer got us thinking: who gets to control the deer’s fate? The humans spoke for the deer, controlling whether the deer got to live or die. The voice of the deer had been either absent entirely in the entire discussion or is used as a mouthpiece to further the agendas of humans. For example, the government was able to instill an artificial boundary on the protection extended to the deer; deer outside of the park are allowed to be hunted while the ones within the park are protected by the state. This boundary is obviously not recognised by deer and enforced by humans. This demonstrates the unequal power dynamic between animal and human in Japan. The lives of the animal being dictated on the whim of humans, in this case, the lives of the deer being the property of the state and not themselves.
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Connell, R. O. (2020, March 29). Nara’s deer lonely for humans bearing snacks. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/travel/naras-deer-lonely-for-humans-bearing-snacks
Otake, T. (2016, March 3). Nara to allow some deer to be culled under new management policy. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/03/03/national/nara-allow-deer-culled-new-management-policy/