The University of Iowa

Skilled and Misunderstood: Matagi, the Traditional Hunters of Japan

Emily Mere is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa double-majoring in Japanese and Foreign Language Education. She spent a year at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan, in 2014–15. Emily is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Tradition in Search of a Rationale: The Future of Hunting in Japan and North America

On December 2nd and 3rd, 2016, the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Iowa, with the support of International Programs and the Japan Foundation, hosted a conference entitled “Tradition in Search of a Rationale: The Future of Hunting in Japan and North America.” The main organizer of the conference was UI anthropology professor Scott Schnell. The two-day conference featured several lectures from a variety of scholars to provide a depth of knowledge and commentary on hunting practices and perspectives in both Japan and North America. Of the guest speakers, two matagi (Japanese traditional hunters) were present, and shared their experiences and views.

As a student of Japanese language and culture, I actually knew very little about the matagi prior to attending this conference. The experience was both enlightening and intriguing. The matagi have often been faced with misunderstanding and opposition in Japan from the general public and animal-rights activists. Buddhism, for example, forbids bringing harm to any living thing, including the hunting of animals. And yet, when it comes to the well-being of nature and its inhabitants, the matagi seem to not only be more knowledgeable, but much more concerned about it, than most citizens of the world. But still, the question persists: how can a tradition that practices killing wildlife claim to coexist with nature?

Upon hearing the testimonies and stories from the matagi and those who work closely with them, it became clear that there is certainly more to their hunting culture than meets the eye. There are a number of characteristics that make matagi unique and distinct from the typical hunter. They are even linguistically differentiated, since translating matagi as “hunter” wouldn’t quite bring forth the correct meaning in Japanese. Traditionally, what sets matagi apart from regular hunters are the spiritual beliefs and practices related to the matagi lifestyle. For instance, there is the belief in the mountain goddess, who provides all that the matagi receive through hunting, and from whom they are careful not to take too much. Matagi—who primarily hunt bear in the northeastern mountains of Japan’s main island, Honshū—also conduct a ritual after shooting a bear, which involves skinning the animal, and placing the hide on the body of the bear once more while giving thanks to the mountain goddess.

Tradition in Search of a Rationale: The Future of Hunting in Japan and North America

On top of that, we heard many interesting stories and details that show the matagi’s strong connection and concern for nature. For one thing, the matagi will put every part of the bear to use to ensure that nothing is going to waste. Also, they will avoid shooting mother bears or cubs at all costs. However, mistakes do happen sometimes. During the conference, Taguchi Hiromi, a Japanese scholar of matagi practices and professor at Tohoku University of Art and Design, shared how a matagi once shot a bear, but only afterwards realized it was a mother bear when he found its cub nearby. He ended up taking the cub home with him, nourished it for a year, and then returned it to the mountain. Taguchi also shared a few personal accounts of the matagi’s sensitivity to nature. While accompanying some matagi on a drive through the mountain forests, he noticed that they would drive around puddles on the road to avoid hurting the tadpoles that live in the water. Also, in the winter, he saw the matagi make pathways in the snowdrifts alongside the road so that rabbits wouldn’t get trapped. I felt moved when Taguchi shared his account of these small, yet powerful gestures, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one amazed at the thoughtfulness the matagi have for the environment, as well as their expertise.

To provide a parallel to the culture and experience of the matagi, James St. Arnold, the Program Director at the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, shared the standpoint of Native American hunting. There are quite a few significant similarities between the matagi and Native American hunting cultures, from their harmonious and respectful relationship with nature, to the ways they are misunderstood and underestimated by the general public.

Tradition in Search of a Rationale: The Future of Hunting in Japan and North America

This was an excellent conference that offered multiple perspectives to help the audience get a better idea of the current state of hunting, and whether it will exist in the same way as we look to the future. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about a valuable, yet overlooked aspect of Japanese culture that even Japanese urban communities may not know much about. It was refreshing and admirable to see how the matagi advocate for nature through their practices and lifestyle, with a conscientious mentality from which all of us can learn something worthwhile.From attending this conference, I could clearly see that the matagi hold a great deal of care and concern for nature and wildlife. At first, it may seem absurd to some that hunting can be a practice that is also harmonious with nature. But that’s exactly how I would describe the matagi. Matsuhashi Mitsuo and Saito Shigemi, the two matagi who spoke at the conference, both have been going into the mountains since they were young. Matsuhashi even said that the forest taught him everything he knows. Because traditional Buddhism doesn’t allow the practice of hunting, the ideology has clashed with the matagi in the past, and they still face contempt from urban communities. Scott Schnell, professor at the University of Iowa, spoke to how the culture and perspectives of the matagi are viewed from the outside. In his talk, he brought up an interesting rebuttal to the disdain held for matagi with a quote from Zen Buddhist literature: “One should not talk to the skilled hunter about what is forbidden by the Buddha.” Along that thinking, in an effort to educate the public as well as build stronger ties with each other and with the general public, a conference called the Matagi Summit is formally held each year in Japan.