The deer are starving at Miyajima

Tara reaches out to comfort the buck. This Nijonjika (Japanese deer) was the first one we saw. It soon became evident that something is terribly wrong with the deer on this island.

After visiting Maneki Neko, the Cat Café, Tara and I hopped back on the little local train to head south again. We got off at Miyajimaguchi Station, in hopes of finding our way to Miyajima Island. I had been told it was easy to find the ferry boat. That turned out to be true: we spotted the ferry while still inside the train station. So, we bought tickets for the ferry at a vending machine nearby. (All tickets can be purchased at a vending machine. Indeed, sometimes it’s the only option. Luckily, they are pretty easy to figure out. Luckier still, when I guess wrong, there is nearly always a forgiving official who can get it straightened out for  me.)

At the ferry dock by Miyajimaguchi station

The ferry ride was cool, breezy, relaxing. A welcome respite from the stifling July heat and humidity. Tara and I brought umbrellas for shade, but there is no way to escape the brutal weather of a Japanese summer.

Soon we spotted the huge red torii in the waters of Miyajima island, which is just offshore and a bit south of Hiroshima. The island is famous for its shrines, and the primary one is Itsukushima Shrine, for which this torii is the gate, or spiritual entrance. If you’ve only seen one photo of a giant red torii in Japan, it was probably this one. From the ferry, the famous torii of Itsukushima Shrine is quite noticeable, and drew my eye as we drew closer and closer.

Water-resistant camphor wood was used to build the torii, which can be approached on foot at low tide.
Looking past Itsukushima Shrine to the island of Honshu – Japan’s largest and most populated island.
Deer begs Tara for ice cream

This island is also famous for its deer. I had seen deer at the base of Mt. Fuji, but I don’t typically see wildlife here except birds, insects, crabs, frogs, fish, and lizards. These are a species of Sika deer, which do not lose their spots in adulthood. The deer were apparently sacred here at some point in the past, likely because a Shinto Buddhist belief is that deer are the messengers of the gods. However, they are currently considered a nuisance by local residents and Japanese officials.

After quick research, I cannot find when the ban on feeding went into effect, prohibiting people from feeding the deer. Until the ban, food for the deer was sold to visitors, and the large population of the deer was due to total dependence upon tourists. I found an unreliable resource that stated it was in 2007. I found a “please sign our save the deer petition” and the first signatures were dated 2002. PETA apparently became involved in 2008. Travel guides mention the issue in 2010.

The most official resource I could find is this publication from the Hatsukaichi City website with a city plan for fiscal years 2009-2013 (Heisei 21-25) to deal with the deer.  Disturbingly, one claim in this document is the intent to build a facility to “rescue unhealthy deer.” It’s disturbing because the city officials of Hatsukaichi are confessing that they should be responsible for detecting and treating unhealthy deer, but in 2012 I stood there on the island and witnessed many starving, deformed deer with skin diseases.

Patting a pregnant deer with patches of fur missing. This is just before another one snuck up behind me and tried to eat papers out of my bag.
Deer graze on what they can find at the creekside.

Before you make any assumptions, please know that I am no vegan tree-hugger. I grew up eating deer and learning how to shoot them. I’m merely pointing out some shockingly poor resource management. And I’m not bashing Japan. There are cases in the U.S. where local deer populations exploded when deer became reliant on food provided by people. It’s a terrible mix: people food and wild animals. And most tourists are too dumb to see the problem, as they gleefully feed cold french fries and paper ice cream wrappers to the deer, then post their videos on YouTube.

Deer and people mix in every open space. I think that one is trying to figure out how to get inside the restaurant.

I’m glad the Internet references to this issue become more common recently. Perhaps it means that local people will be pressured into coming up with a more effective plan. What that plan would be, I can’t guess. I saw no vegetation around for the deer to eat, but maybe there is some tucked away in the hills. I suspect if there was another option besides begging from tourists, the deer would choose to eat grass instead of starve to death.

Sorry about this depressing post. I intended to write about the beauty of the shrines, the photogenic torii (what’s plural for torii? toriii?), my lovely daughter sharing Japan with me, and of course, the agony of the abominable damp thickness of the furnace we had to endure day after day… oh. I mean, the weather.

But you know, as cool as the sights were, as impressive the shrines, as fun as the ferry rides were, the deer made it depressing. Tara and I didn’t really talk about it, but it was the elephant in the room. The deer themselves reminded us how unfortunate they were, every couple of minutes, as they hovered nearby and followed the movements of our hands hopefully, as though they might contain food.  I was so disappointed not to have been alerted to bring food ahead of time.

Deer with deformed leg eats food powder.

At one point, a woman showed up with some kind of food. It looked like rabbit pellets mixed with powdered chicken feed. She spread it all over the ground and deer showed up in herds to eat it. But a lot of the powder was wasted when it got mixed into the sand. I watched two rear up on hind legs and bash each other with their hooves, fighting over the powdered food in the sand.113130

Tara beneath a towering granite torii

10 thoughts on “The deer are starving at Miyajima

    1. Yes. Sad was exactly it. I had catfood at home because I visited a place with stray cats. I could have easily brought a bag for the deer if I had known about this before hand.

  1. Oh my gosh. I would imagine the deer have some form of nourishment other than the tourists however, tourists are easy pickings albeit not the healthiest of choices. With the expansion of mankind into the wilderness, we must find a way to co-mingle with our fellow creatures. Unfortunately, this is another example of how poorly we have considered the impact we have on the lives of those creatures who don’t speak our human language.

    Like you, I enjoy a fine plate of venison. We must find balance or we will destroy the beauty our eyes behold as well as our tummy.

    Thanks for bringing this to light, it needed to be shared.
    Love you Cuz.

  2. I lived in Hiroshima in 1995 and 1996 and visited Miyajima on numerous occasions. I remember seeing lots of deer and there were monkeys as you go higher up the mountains. Many tourists were feeding the deer and thankfully I didn’t see any that seemed sick. I do remember seeing an annoyed shopkeeper take a wooden rice paddle and swat one of the deer on his backside when he got too close to her shop’s entrance. I don’t know if you went to the island’s aquarium while you were there. I’m not even sure if it’s still open. Hopefully not because it was really awful. I never should have gone in because I’m a real animal-lover. I won’t go into detail, but basically the tanks were way too small for the animals. I’m still haunted by what I saw. Unfortunately, based on what I saw in Japan (not only on Miyajima), they generally have a different view of animals. There are many kind-hearted animal-lovers in Japan, but the official policies toward animals are less than humane. While living there, I encountered many situations that left me very sad. I guess I shouldn’t talk. Animals in the U.S. suffer a great deal too. The whole world needs to change.

    1. Sol, thank you for the memories and for taking the time to comment on my blog. I don’t recall whether the aquarium was open or not, but now I am glad we did not go. I wish I had climbed the mountain because I’ve never seen a wild monkey.

      You are right about animal-lovers in Japan, and I saw many of them. Still, this deer problem will get fixed when enough people complain, and I think not enough have complained yet. It’s been a few years since I was there, so hopefully things are better now.

  3. Hi. I found out about the deer at Miyajima on twitter recently, gathered more information in Japanese /English and I came across of your blog. I am from Nara where people and deer coexist and visitors are allowed to give deer biscuits made by a deer protection group. Profits are used to run the group to help wild deer. Miyajima is one of the popular spots in Japan among foreign tourists and I really want Peta to get involved again to spread this ugly truth so that the city council will lift the ban on feeding deer and come up with a better solution, so I am thinking to email Peta for help. The Tokyo Olympics will be held in 2020 and abuse against deer must be stopped. Thank you for your information.

    1. Tomoyo thank you for your message and thank you so much for taking action on this issue. I agree that PETA could get involved again and try to find a way to raise awareness. Your idea of addressing it before the 2020 Olympics is a great one. Many eyes will be on Japan and activists like yourself have used past Olympics to highlight problems in the host countries. There must be a better solution to the deer problem at Miyajima! I like what you describe in Nara, and it’s very likely the residents of Miyajima have already thought about ideas to help the situation. All that’s needed is some government incentive to ask them for these ideas, and then put something in place. Thank you again for caring and for researching, and I encourage you to write to PETA and to the Miyajima government and the Tokyo government about this 20-year-old problem.

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