Japan is renowned for its vibrant culture, stunning landscapes, and technological advancements. But amid the bustling cities and peaceful countryside, a question lingers: Are there tigers in Japan?
While the mention of tigers might conjure up images of dense jungles and distant continents, it turns out that these majestic creatures have a fascinating relationship with the Land of the Rising Sun.
Delving into history, folklore, and conservation efforts, this article sets out to uncover the truth about tigers in Japan and shed light on their significance in this captivating nation.
Are There Tigers In Japan?
There are no wild tigers in Japan, but they have captive tigers in their zoos. Despite their significant presence in Japanese culture, literature, and poetry, no tigers are living in Japan outside of captivity.
Many Asian countries like India are known for their tigers, and in fact, India has the highest tiger population on this planet. So, this answer might surprise some people.
According to fossil records, it is believed that tigers might have lived in Japan once upon a time; however, it is not proven yet as these can be brought into the country after people became capable of making the thousands of miles sea journey in boats between Japan, Korea, and China.
According to a theory, when Japan was still connected to the continent’s eastern coast and was connected to Sakhalin and Korea (i.e., roughly 2.6 million years ago), it is believed that there were tigers in Japan that had migrated from other Asian countries like Russia.
During that period, Sakhalin was linked to the mainland of Russia and, more importantly, with the Amur River Basin (home to the Siberian tiger). But when the sea level of the western Pacific Ocean rose, they lost their habitat and moved to other countries in Southeast Asia.
So, in this theory, some historians say Wanhsien tigers (Panthera tigris acutidens) inhabited Japan, which is known to have existed during the Pleistocene era (a period that spanned from 2.6 million years ago to nearly 12,000 years ago).
What Happened To Tigers In Japan?
Japanese tigers are believed to look similar to small Balinese tigers but became extinct around 12,000 years ago.
Although some people say they are extinct because of the increase in sea levels and the food crisis, some Japanese people also believe their ancestors hunted the tigers and caused this tragedy.
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Why Are Tigers In Japanese Art?
Many people believed that the first tiger skins were brought to Japan from overseas after humans became capable of making long sea journeys. When they were brought into Japan, the noble classes were fascinated by them, and soon, they became highly revered among the elite class.
So, they wanted live animals, but long sea journeys with live animals aboard were still impossible. The animals couldn’t make it alive, and the Japanese didn’t know tigers, beyond they look like large house cats.
The Nijo Castle, once the country’s capital, sought artists from the esteemed Kano art school to craft exquisite paintings showcasing these enchanting creatures. Since these artists lacked firsthand experience with actual tigers, they often painted them like oversized pet cats with stripes.
Japanese artists then started to paint pictures of them everywhere, on folding screens, scrolls, woodblock prints, and so on, imagining how they would have appeared when alive using the skins as models. However, they weren’t so perfect in doing the exact shape of the head.
This is why you often see tigers with distorted faces on ancient Japanese works of art. Also, if you notice, they were shown with short pointy ears and eyes with vertical iris. But all big cats have a round iris. It is because those artists just didn’t know how they were supposed to look from the skins alone.
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Does Japan Have Any Wild Cats?
Even though Japan does not have tigers, it is home to a wild cat named Tsushima leopard cat (not to be confused with the similar-looking domestic Bengal cat), a crossbreed between the leopard and the domestic cat.
It is almost the same size as most domestic cats, weighing around 6.6 to 11 pounds (3 to 5 kg) and reaching lengths of 2’3″ to 2’8″ feet (70 to 80 cm). However, female cats tend to be a little smaller than males.
This cat species has a browny-blonde body and a flat tail and lives off small terrestrial vertebrates and insects.
But sadly, the Tsushima leopard cat, which mainly inhabits the islands of Iriomote and Okinawa, is endangered. Currently, there are less than 100 cats alive.
Tigers are the largest of the ‘Big Cats,’ and there are multiple species/subspecies of tigers, many of which have become extinct, unfortunately. The two main types of tigers that currently roam on our planet are the Siberian (the largest species of tigers) and the Royal Bengal tiger.
However, tigers have a strong presence in Japanese art and illustrations, which is why many wonder whether tigers actually roamed in Japan. But the answer is no. Although Japan has some captive tigers in their zoos (like Ueno Zoo, Tokyo), there are no wild tigers apart from them.
While some theories say that Japan used to have tigers when it was connected to other Asian countries, there are no solid proofs to support this statement.