Bear-Related Deaths, Injuries at Record Level in Japan as Animals’ Habitat, Population Expands

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A bear emerged from a bamboo thicket and attacked this man in Happo, Akita Prefecture.

At least 158 injuries and deaths have been caused by bears in Japan this fiscal year, tying the all-time high seen in fiscal 2020.

Experts attribute the situation to a bad crop of the nuts that bears feed on, as well as the animals’ expanding habitats and growing population. The public should stay alert, as bears become active at this time of year before they hibernate.

Attacked at bus top

Residents heard women screaming in the center of Kita-Akita city, Akita Prefecture, on Thursday morning. Four women, including a junior high school girl who was waiting at a bus stop, were attacked by a bear one after another.

“It’s scary. I could encounter a bear at anytime,” said the 66-year-old owner of a Japanese confectionary shop nearby, his expression troubled.

A 82-year-old farmer in the town of Happo, northern Akita Prefecture, said he was struck by a bear that emerged from a bamboo thicket while he was working in a field near his house in mid-September. Two of the man’s teeth were broken, and he sustained injuries on his head and face.

He was hospitalized for about three weeks.

“It happened in an instant,” the man said in a wavering voice while rubbing a deep scar on his face.

This fiscal year, a total of 109 cases of bear-inflicted injury or death had been reported nationwide as of the end of September, according to preliminary figures from the Environment Ministry. During the month of October, there were at least 49 bear attacks through Friday, according to a survey by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

In Akita Prefecture alone, 52 bear attacks have been reported so far this fiscal year, more than eight times the figure in fiscal 2022.

An increasing number of bears have been spotted around the country. There were 14,943 sightings across Japan through the end of September, an increase of 4,210 from the same period last year.

There have also been reports of sightings this year on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, where a wild bear was spotted in 2021 for the first time in 100 years.

Habitats expanding

Bears’ habitats are expanding. One reason why is to believed to be the increasing area of deserted arable land and thickets where bears can hide themselves, a result of the declining human population.

In 2019, the Environment Ministry’s Biodiversity Center of Japan announced that wild bears’ habitats had increased 40% from fiscal 2003, based on its research.

The number of wild bears is also believed to be rising. The Yomiuri Shimbun compiled figures based on data from 27 prefectures, excluding Hokkaido, regarding the number of black bears since fiscal 2017. The Yomiuri estimated the existence of about 44,000 black bears, or three times the about 15,000 that the biodiversity center estimated in fiscal 2012.

Brown bears, which live only in Hokkaido, also rose from an estimated 5,200 in fiscal 1990 to an estimated 11,700 in fiscal 2020.

Prof. Yoshikazu Sato of Rakuno Gakuen University, who is familiar with bears’ ecology, said the increasing number of bears can be attributed to rising public awareness of natural conservation since the 1990s. As a result, the prevailing attitude changed from excessive extermination of bears to a more restrained approach of co-existing with bears, Sato said.