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熊 Bears in Japan

Image: Tontan Travel | CC 

For anyone who's been hiking in the mountains of North America, and some parts of Europe, potential bear encounters are a normal part of outdoor activities. However, for most other countries, we are not familiar with such a risk and are unaware of what to expect in these environments. For many travellers to Japan, it's quite a surprise to find out that we do indeed share the mountains with bears, and the number of sightings has been increasing for the past 15 years [1]. It then comes as a further surprise that despite how cautious Japanese culture normally is regarding safety in most aspects of daily life, compared to North America there seems to be less proactive effort for the prevention and control of bear attacks. This is partially due to the rarity of sightings on popular hiking trails. Ask the expats and locals who live here, and most will tell you that they've never seen a bear, or that the bears simply run away, that you have nothing to worry about, or you just need to wear a bear bell. They also point out that wild boar, hornets, and monkeys are much more likely to cause trouble while hiking. But what about the increase in sightings? What about the growth in bear population? What about the behavioural difference compared to bears in North America? And do the bear bells even work? This article will give an overview of the situation and try to remain objective in the risk assessment of hiking with bears in Japan.

 

Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, will be the focus of this article as they are the ones which are found on the mainland and the Japanese Alps. Brown bears are only found in Hokkaido, and those precautions are the same for brown bears in other countries.

比   Comparing to North America

In North America

     For the US and Canada, education on wildlife encounters is thorough and the national park system is well integrated, bear sightings are accurately monitored and encounters are deterred by the park rangers. For bears that get too comfortable with human activity, many measures are taken to change their behaviour. For example, one tactic is to capture and release them with a fearful barrage of rubber bullets and barking dogs. And if bears keep coming near campsites, park rangers or campground staff will find them and scare them off with firecrackers and rubber bullets. Any unprovoked predatory attacks will result in hunting and culling to prevent future deaths - keep in mind hunting is highly regulated to protect the bears.

     The behaviour of humans is also well managed, most people know about preventative behaviour while camping and hiking. These behaviours are re-enforced with the national park system and also the individual campgrounds. In hiking areas where bears live, you will find nearly everyone carrying bear spray, and only a few people carrying bear bells. It is well established that in the event of an attack, bear spray is the most effective measure to stopping the attack - even more effective than a sidearm pistol or rifle. Although there is one caveat, the bear spray needs to be immediately accessible, usually on your waist or jacket and not buried in your backpack.

In Japan

     Japan however, lacks a consistent system for the monitoring and reporting of bear sightings, so they are likely under-reported. And aside from culling, you won't find the same level of preventative measures which are common in North America. There are some independent organisations working on preventative measures, such as Picchio [2], but these kind of efforts are very inconsistent across different prefectures and hiking areas. In some places you'll find bear warning signs, in some places you'll find notices that list the most recent sightings, but in other hiking areas you'll find no signs at all and yet local hikers will mention they saw a bear recently. For bear attacks, similar to North America, they are also followed up with hunting and culling. Although hunting is highly regulated, thousands of black bears are culled each year as part of population control measures by individual cities and prefectures - without these measures the population growth would become problematic. Even with thousands of bears culled each year, their population is growing. [3

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The asiatic black bear - also called 'moon' bears

Image: Guérin Nicolas | CC

     Human behaviour in Japan is also very different, the most noticeable of which is the absence of bear spray and the prevalence of bear bells. If you go hiking anywhere in Japan, you will find 99% of people carrying bear bells, but bear spray is rarely seen among Japanese hikers. The irony of this trend is quite strange for people familiar with bear safety. There is no argument regarding the effectiveness of bear spray, but the use of bear bells is often debated among hikers. Let's examine the data and what the experts say regarding bear bells.

 Bear Bells

     With most of the hiking trails in Japan, you will hear the ever-present sound of bear bells. Some sound like wind chimes, some sound like an adorable kitten, some sound like a cow bell, and some are just plain annoying. Actually, most of them are very annoying if you're used to hiking with the peaceful sounds of nature. Bear bells are extremely popular in Japan, but do they really work? If we look at the limited research, it's somewhat inconclusive, although it appears that most experts do not believe in them.

The Idea

     On the surface of it, the idea makes a lot of sense. The best way to survive ​encounters with wildlife is to avoid them in the first place, so we need a way to alert the bears of our presence. It's also firmly agreed upon that surprising a bear can cause an aggressive, defensive reaction. But we're talking about a 150kg bear with no predators, is the friendly jingling of a bell really enough to scare them away? 

What do the experts say?

     Stephen Herrero is a Professor of Environmental Science and Biology at the University of Calgary, Canada. He is recognised throughout the world as a leading authority on bear ecology, behavior and attacks. In his book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Stephen says it's possible that curious bears may actually be attracted to bear bells, and people have reported that loud, abrupt noises like regular yelling or small gas canister horns seem to work better for keeping bears away. [4]

     The US National Parks Service (NPS) states a similar recommendation: "Bear bells may be a popular item to put on your backpack, but they don’t effectively warn a bear you’re in the area. Bears won’t hear the bells until you’re too close. Yelling, clapping, and talking are more effective ways of alerting a bear to your presence." [5]

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     On the contrary, I've also occasionally come across tourism websites or park websites that do recommend bear bells to prevent surprise encounters. But the predominant view from qualified experts is that you should be carrying bear spray, as bells are unreliable and inconclusive. A possible contradiction worth noting: the experts also say that bears have a good sense of hearing, and we know that the bells are quite easy to hear - so why are they saying this? It likely comes down to terminology, the bears simply don't care about the sound they make, even if they can hear them.

What does the data say?

     Research into the effectiveness of bear bells is very limited, due to the difficult nature of testing the theory. The only study that I could find that has pursued this question was conducted by Tom Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center. He tested the theory by stringing bear-bells on a fishing line so he could jingle it from a hiding spot and see their response. Fifteen groups of grizzly bears walked past as Smith pulled the line, making a loud jingling sound. Not one bear flinched. [6] However, these were grizzly bears, not moon bears.

     I did manage to find positive results in one epistemological study which showed an association between bear bells and a reduction in charge attacks by grizzly bears. [7] However, epistemological studies are not well suited for conclusions, they are mainly used for ideas into further research. This is because there are too many confounding variables, for example: the size of the group, the noise made by each group, the time of day, the time of the year, the type of bell used, and the fact that grizzly bears behave very differently from the Asiatic black bear. If we had 10 studies finding the same association, then a likely conclusion could be reached - but we actually have a lot of opposing evidence and the experts don't completely agree with these study results.

     So for us to answer our question regarding hiking in Japan, the next step is to look at the unprovoked bear attacks in Japan, and check if they were wearing a bear bell.

Unprovoked bear attacks and bear bells
     In Akita prefecture in May 2017, a 61 year-old lady was out with her friend collecting bamboo shoots in the early morning. At the time, she was wearing two bear bells, she eventually became separated from her friend and was later found dead with significant injuries from a bear attack. [8] This was not an isolated incident. in the same prefecture in 2016, a total of 4 people were killed by bears, again while gathering bamboo shoots. [8] Unfortunately, there are other examples like this.

Conclusion 

     Considering the documented attacks on people wearing bear bells, it's reasonable to conclude that in many cases the bears are simply not concerned about the sound they make. For them to be effective, we would have to teach them to fear the soundSome observational research done on grizzly bears appears to support both sides of the argument, but the results are inconclusive. Although bear bells make sense hypothetically, the majority of experts don't support their use, and have suggested that bears could become curious of the sound. 

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 Bear attac ks in Japan

The American black bear vs the Asian black bear

     The behaviours of the North American black bear are well known and fairly predictable. When investigating the attacks that do occur, the majority are involving cubs, and the next common denominator is provocation from dogs. Although predatory attacks do happen, they are very rare (9).

     For moon bears however, their behaviour appears to be more complicated and unpredictable. While both black bears and moon bears are considered timid and easily scared by humans, the attacks from moon bears appear to highlight some unpredictable behaviours.

Examples of unprovoked or unpredictable attacks

     As we begin looking at bear attacks in Japan, it's important to remind ourselves of the bigger picture. The vast majority of bear encounters in Japan result in the bears running away without attacking, and the chances of seeing a bear while hiking in most parts of Japan are very low, much lower than North America. Moreover, the majority of attacks do not result in death, and often involve an external source of food.

     However, we need to look at the attacks to understand the risks - although very rare, a timid and endearing animal can become dangerous and sometimes predatory under certain circumstances. The goal here is not to invoke fear, but to demonstrate the problem with prioritising bear bells over bear spray.

     In addition to the attacks in Akita Prefecture mentioned above, here are some notable examples that demonstrate unpredictable behaviour.

2009 - Takayama, Gifu Prefecture: "A bear assaulted nine people, most of them tourists, Saturday afternoon at a bus terminal at the end of the Norikura Skyline road in Takayama, seriously wounding four men, police said." - www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/bears

2016 - Gunma Prefecture: "A man was fishing in Gunma Prefecture on the Jizo river, when an 6-foot tall Asian Black Bear pounced at the man after they locked eyes ... the man was able to strike the bear repeatedly in the eyes until it ran away." - grapee.jp/en/70298

2020 - Fukui Prefecture: "A 56-year-old employee who was stretching before work at a rail yard was mauled by a bear at around 8:30 a.m. ... about 10 minutes after the first attack, a 49-year-old contract worker at a construction site, was attacked by the same bear" - https://mainichi.jp

2020 - Kamikochi, Nagano Prefecture: Around 11:30pm, a women was suddenly woken by a bear tugging at her tent, when she screamed for help the attack escalated and she was dragged along with her tent for about 10 meters before breaking free. When her friends recovered her backpack they found her food had been eaten. - www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13655582

2020 - Kamikochi, Nagano Prefecture: "Several black bears whose food supply had been disturbed by the heavy rains found their way to the campgrounds and, in at least one case, attacked visitors" - www.kamikochi.org/2020-season-retrospective

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結語 Final thoughts

We've looked at a lot of information in this article and covered many areas such as bear bells, bear spray, bear attacks, population growth, and preventative measures. It would be great if we had more data, and our opinions could change if more research becomes available or if new information comes to light. Considering everything we know so far, it's fair to say that bear bells are not reliable and bear spray should be used instead. Many expats and local residents say that you don't need bear spray because the chances of an attack are so low, and in some ways this is correct - but, you'll always wear a seatbelt even though the chances of a car accident are very low, it's just a matter of risk assessment. Regarding Japan's annual culling of bears, I understand that a harmonious balance with nature is ideal and this should always be the goal - but the data indicates that the current level of culling is not excessive, does not negatively impact the environment, and prevents innocent human deaths. The chances of an encounter are very low, and the chances of an attack are even lower. The mountains are inspiring and powerful, just take the necessary precautions and you can enjoy them peacefully.

If you have any additional information you would like to add, any sources of data you would like to suggest, or any experiences you would like to share, leave a message in the comments below.

 

References

[1] - Ministry of the Environment

https://www.env.go.jp/nature/choju/effort/effort12

[2] - Picchio - Wildlife Research Center

https://www.wildlife-picchio.com/conservation/bears/

[3] - Seeking Balance with the Bear

https://www.nippon.com/en/features/c03915/

[4] - Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/423975.Bear_Attacks

[5] - Hiking in Bear Country

https://www.nps.gov/articles/hiking-in-bear-country

[6] - Bear Bells 101

https://www.greenbelly.co/pages/do-bear-bells-work

[7] - Hiker behaviour and the interactions with grizzly bears

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs

[8] - 'Bear deterrent' bells seem ineffective as casualties continue

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170611/p2a/00m/0na/005000c

[9] - Patterns of Bear Attacks on Humans, Factors Triggering Risky Scenarios, and How to Reduce Them

https://ntnc.org.np

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