TOKYO (majirox news) – Help! Hakubishin are overrunning Tokyo, at least in Setagaya-ku. While it’s not quite bad enough a situation to warrant sitting up nights in the dark with a loaded shotgun, it’s sure to bring screams of dismay from any biologist.
“Hakubishin is one of my favorite Japanese words,” said Tom Tatro, a computer systems engineer, long time Setagaya resident and a confirmed Hakubishin watcher. “Half the Japanese I mention it to have never heard this word before, and most have never seen one.”
This is hardly surprising. There supposedly wasn’t a single hakubishin in Tokyo 20 years ago, according to Tatro.
“They’re called masked palm civets in English,” Tatro said. “They’re an invasive species accidentally introduced to Japan that is driving out native Japanese wildlife. There isn’t a single Japanese animal that gets around by running along telephone wires.”
Hakubishin look like weasels or ferrets, but are larger and have a bandito mask like a raccoon or tanuki. However, their tail is much longer than their body. “This is what gives them their amazing sense of balance,” Tatro said. “I sometimes look up and see them running full tilt along the phone wires.”
They are commonly found in the jungles of South-East Asia. They were introduced to Japan in the early 20th century and usually lived in villages and mountainous areas. However, some say as the natural areas around Tokyo continue to be destroyed, the civets have drifted into the city. This has also led to confrontations between the civets and Tokyoites. But nobody knows how civets got loose in Tokyo, let alone in upscale Setagaya, noted Tatro.
Ayaka Kanoe, Tatro’s friend and a professional exotic animal dealer, has a theory how they first came to Japan. “I believe the Chinese brought them over to eat,” she said. “Then somebody accidentally left a cage door open, and the rest is history.” In some parts of China they eat them. They also could have been introduced for its fur, though the industry has long since perished.
Civets have now joined the many other invasive species, such as the raccoons, big mouth bass and the murgh clam, in shouldering aside native Japanese animals and carving out their own ecological niche.
According to Kanoe, Tokyo is swarming with wildlife. Experts think there are about 3,000 Tanuki living in Tokyo. There are endless nooks and crannies for them to burrow into. There must be a dozen Tanuki-fan sites on the Internet. There are colonies of raccoons in Tokyo, and even Japanese badgers have been spotted.
“Now we have the civet cats, too,” Kanoe said. “The Tanuki spotting group has a home page to tell the two apart. And for the really dense, there’s even a picture of a common house cat there, so you don’t call animal control when there is a big alley cat in your garden.”
Tatro added, “They’re really cute, but don’t go anywhere near them. They are wild animals; they bite, and they are mean.”
Kanoe agreed, “You can’t make pets out of them or domesticate them. Don’t try to give them food either. Basically a Hakubishin believes that sharp claws and a bad attitude are a good way to get through life.”
The link for the tanuki spotting group link is http://tokyotanuki.jp/comparison.htm