In 1006, the famed calligraphist Fujiwara Yukinari visited a monk friend of the Kofuku-ji Temple, where he lingered in solitude for prayer and contemplation. His diary, entitled Gonki, chronicles the propitious portents noted during his visit to the present-day shrine of Nara: “When I entered the shrine, a pheasant chirped. During my prayer, a crow perched on the third main shrine. Then upon my exit from the shrine, I encountered deer” (Ogata). In a diary passage from his Chuyuki, dated 1112, the court noble Fujiwara Munetada visits Nara, where he inspects the proposed location for the construction of a pagoda. Surveying the shrine’s forest, Munetada notes: ‘During our activity, 40 or 50 deer appeared from the forest and from the direction of the Shrine, and began to accompany us. Believing that this was really a very good omen and a sign from the gods, the monks of the Temple expressed their delight” (Ogata). Ancient divination practices, namely Futomani, involved reading, or interpreting, the cracks of a heated shoulder bone of a buck (Picken 73). Deer sightings, and the benevolence and fortune attributed to them, are also noted in Kujo Kanezane’s Gyokuyo. Recounting the reconstruction of a temple razed during battle, Kanezane writes, “At that moment a deer appeared from inside the hall and ran westward. It was so miraculous that I cannot describe it in words. I was momentarily bewildered, then joined my hands and bowed to the deer. Everyone attending the ritual was moved to tears” (Ogata).

Predating these passages was a government decree in the year 841 that proscribed “hunting and tree felling in the sacred hills of the Great Kasugsa Gods in the Soekami County of the Yamato Province” (Ogata). The writings of Father Gaspar Vilela, a Jesuit missionary from Portugal, avers that this decree was enforced with draconian severity:

“[T]here is a densely populated city called Nara which has many large and rich temples [. . . with a] herd of about three or four thousand tame deer which roam through the city. Belonging to the temple, they graze in the fields and wander through the streets like dogs; they are worshipped because of their connection with the temple and the idol. Anybody killing one of these deer suffers death, his property is confiscated and his lineage is cut off. If a deer should lie in the street, the people living round about are obliged to report the cause of its death; failure to do so brings down heavy punishment on them.”

(quoted in Ogata)

Although capital punishment may have been official law, it had been last enforced in 1637. According to Kawaji Toshiakira, the magistrate of Nara from 1846 to 1851, “one who killed a deer was stoned to death or beheaded near the Sarusawa Pond after being dragged around Kofuku-ji” (Ogata). In his diary, he records that workers accidentally killed a buck while removing its horns. Incensed by this unforgivable misdeed, the prince of Ichijo-in and the Mofuku-ji monks likened the hapless workers to “ancient Chinese tyrants,” seeking to invoke the medieval death penalty. Toshiakira intervened and forbade the punishment, noting his inner astonishment: “Although this must have been a custom during the times of the Warring States [fifteenth–sixteenth centuries] or earlier, I was perplexed by their insistence that it was an unchangeable rule. I have believed that rules of this sort, which made the killing of cranes or deer a capital offense, should only have existed in dramas played in theaters. It was an interesting experience to be bewildered by facing such a rule in reality” (Ogata). Culled from various eleventh- and twelfth-century sources, these passages convey the felt singularity of deer sightings, celebrated as fugacious visits from deities as well as revered as fortune-packed omens.

Deified as messengers of the gods, as portents of good, sika deer (Cervus nippon Temminck) have occupied (and continue to occupy) a role in Shinto spirituality, so much so that in 1957 the Japanese government classified the Nara deer as a national treasure. But these deer, despite their sanctified and protected designation, are subject to the same ecological and environmental vicissitudes as other species. Overpopulation, in particular, is a major concern regarding the deer of the ancient city of Nara, south of Kyoto, where fifteen hundred deer roam the streets. More than 1.6 million Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean tourists visit Nara annually to view the ancient edifices and buy shika senbei (deer crackers) to feed their urban hosts. Recent research documents that Nara’s three-hundred-hectare, old-growth Kasugayama Forest Reserve (a Special Natural Monument and a World Heritage site) is undergoing a slow but perilous transformation, as the overabundant deer population from Naga Park brims over into the reserve, where they strip bark from trees; devour young tree shoots, plants, and low branches; and instigate soil erosion.

“If the situation continues like this,” warns the ecologist Yuri Maesako, a professor at Osaka Sangyro University’s Graduate School of Human Environment, “the original evergreen broadleaf forest will not be preserved” (Bird). Aside from impacts to the forest, sika herds devastate local rice, bamboo, and vegetable crops. These issues are not localized to Nara alone: The species occupies two-thirds of Japan’s national forests, and their ravages are felt nationally. Scientists attribute the influx to the extinction of wolves, dwindling numbers of stray dogs, and land-use variations, not to mention that Japan has never had a strong tradition of recreational hunting. Civilian frustrations in Nara have resulted in occasions of startling violence — in 2010, a deer was shot fatally with a crossbow; in 2008, one was harpooned to death; and in 2003, another was killed by an arrow.

These ecological and agricultural perils led to the Nara Prefectural Government to launch, in 2017, the first official deer cull. Authorities installed box traps to remove deer that wandered outside of the park; likewise, deer found in the so-called borderline zone, that is, in agricultural areas and beyond, were also permitted to be killed. Curiously absent from government announcements and media coverage of the culls is the fact that deer will be euthanized following capture, an unsettling aspect of the process that the government is working to obscure from Japan’s public. One government official, Kazutomi Mukai, admits that the “[l]ast time we tried to take action, which was a few years ago, our office was flooded with phone calls from people protesting it. . . . It has sort of been taboo for a long time” (Otake). More-humane approaches, however, are promoted by organizations such as the Let’s Make the Deer Population More Sustainable and Enjoy Nara Again Friendship Association, which invites people to adopt and take deer home.

The Japanese photographer Takashi Homma’s collection, Trails, chronicles sika deer culls enacted far from the tourist-thronged precincts of Nara in favor of the remote areas of Shiretoko National Park, located on the island of Hokkaido. The verdant and rambling park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains more than an estimated three million sika deer, whose geographical footprint, from the 1990s to 2009, expanded by 70 percent (Zukowski). According to an annual Japan Forestry Agency report, some 19,000 acres of Japan’s forests in 2015 were impacted negatively by wildlife (77 percent attributed to deer alone), to say nothing of the associated $53 million in damage (Zukowski).

From 2009 to 2018, Homma visited Shiretoko during the winter, capturing the sanguineous vestiges of deer culls against the white backdrop of snow — a canvaslike element that lends the work its spectral quality. Homma’s collection, however, is less documentary than it is a quietly eloquent requiem for a sacred species at odds with the earthly realities of a changing ecology, a species whose supernatural rank is undercut by natural circumstances. The forest captured in Trails belongs to a world redolent of the compositions of Franz Kline, whose thickets of pitch-black brushstrokes against white canvases mirror Homma’s color images, the spindly shadows of trees placed in stark contrast to Shiretoko’s snow-blanketed forest floors. Underneath black and leafless boughs, Homma frames the crimson blots and threadwork of deer blood, red trails that wend throughout the forest, over brush, and along the banks of icy streams.

Homma’s collection follows a discernable sequence that first features wide swaths of remote forest, with no deer in sight, flecked with clustered indentations of hoofprints. In another, Homma photographs two deer above which traverses an electrical wire, the only image in the collection that displays an overt presence of the human world. One deer is nibbling brush, the other is alert to Homma’s presence. The photographer captures, too, an empty den under pine-tree branches, arched under the weight of snow, its former inhabitants not likely to return. While these images convey the vast proportions of this ancient forest, they document the realities of its seemingly inexorable destruction — indeed, the trees resemble forlorn obelisks, the deer having gnawed away their bark, devoured saplings and new sprouts, and trampled underbrush. One image magnifies the ravaged bark of a birch tree, its side gnashed open; in another, odd fungal growths and sickly discoloration fill the gaps where bark was stripped long ago.

Marc Abrahams, a forest ecologist based at Pennsylvania State University, notes that when deer ravage the seedlings, sasa bamboo overtakes the forest floor: “You’re up to your waist in this stuff and the trees just can’t regenerate through that” (Zukowski). Although Homma’s collection focuses disproportionally on the vestiges of deer killings, these images document a finely tuned ecology disturbed by species overpopulation, one whose biodiversity is being reshaped every day. No wonder, then, that the goal of the Japanese government is to diminish the deer population in half by 2025 through various means, including hunting and traps (Zukowski). There is an alarming barrenness to the areas ravaged by Shiretoko’s deer, suggesting that the forest is an unsustainable habitat moving toward possible exhaustion.

The bloody trails featured in the rest of the collection seldom lead to a frozen carcass or suffering deer; they comprise only a fragmented map of partial wanderings and inchoate movements. Viewers do not see where the wounded deer die, but Homma’s images, being unexpectedly kinetic, capture fatal injury in motion. This sense of movement is central to Homma’s collection, as it is through their kinetic expression that viewers are urged to use a kind of investigative scrutiny to fully appreciate the depth of each image. Across each photograph is a sense of movement that fluctuates individually. For example, in an untitled and unnumbered image, small circles of blood are framed by smooth, parallel furrows in the snow, suggesting that a deer carcass has been pulled along the very spot Homma photographed. In another, blood has pooled and congealed atop of snow, where a wounded deer likely stopped to nibble or rest, bewildered by fresh injury. In one photograph, a tiny hoofprint, trailed by dark red droplets, suggests a wounded doe, perhaps a fawn, headed into a thicket for security.

It is this urge to collect and coalesce individual clues, to speculate on the circumstances of each trail, that gives this type of viewing its investigative quality — that is, viewers might attempt to track the direction, collection, and volume of blood; the color and shade of blood (sometimes it is bright crimson, at others it is stale russet); its location (whether proximate to wooded areas or to forest streams); the shapes of and distances between droplets; the topography and indentations in snow; the sizes and shapes of hoofprints (could the hunted deer be a fawn, doe, or stag?). Homma’s collection is at its best when this investigative impulse is stirred, as it prompts viewers to react empathically to the dying animal precisely by attempting to trace and understand its final movements and suffering.

In a memorable image, crows squat in leafless trees during a crepuscular midwinter glow. In the foreground, with surrounding brush flattened, the forest floor is covered in pools of bloody slush. Homma’s collection succeeds not only through the investigative scrutiny it encourages, but also in avoiding (almost entirely) graphic representation of slain deer. This may be due to the practical reason of Homma’s arrival to the scene after hunters had removed the deer; but if there was any deliberate artistic decision to photograph only sanguineous traces, it intensifies the spectral quality of Shiretoko’s sylvan world, wherein the landscape is trampled, bloodstained, and empty.

What may surprise viewers is Homma’s interjection of five acrylic (seemingly) paintings, which break up the collection as it is nearing conclusion, depicting the subject matter of his photographs — mournful crimson smears against white and muddied backdrops, with thick brambles composing a frame. On the one hand, this is a puzzling interruption of the photographs, perhaps more welcome at the end of the collection; on the other hand, they create a quiet interplay between photographed and painted image, dissolving the sharply delineated winter landscape into undulated and abstractly calligraphic scenes. Running parallel to the photographs, the paintings suggest inevitably the clash of two distinct worlds, the human and the non-human animal, one’s remoteness and unintelligibility from the other as the habitat is modified through human intervention. Homma’s paintings convey this mutual unintelligibility through crimson and deliquescent renderings of the Shiretoko forest.

Studying these images, however, it is difficult to ascertain whether Homma is a phlegmatic chronicler or a decrier of how Japan manages ecological challenges. The collection is rather equivocal: There is no accompanying text that might otherwise bear the photographer’s opposition. But the sheer fact that he has troubled himself at all to document the culls suggests that he has an opinion regarding how the sika deer population is being addressed — as one returns to the collection for subsequent viewings, it becomes increasingly apparent that the killings are an enormously tedious and temporary solution, as hunters must track deer across thousands of acres of uninhabited swaths of forest. Homma, without voicing his opinion explicitly, nudges viewers to question, inevitably, whether the deer culls are a sensible and sustainable method to restore ecological balance.

Among more environmentally sustainable solutions is to reintroduce wolves to the Shiretoko region; the native population is now extinct due to widespread “persecution, hunting, warfare, and perhaps rabies” (Zukowski). One native species, such as the Ezo wolf (Canis lupus hattai), was endemic to Hokkaido until 1889; another, the Honshu wolf (C. lupus hodophilax), disappeared after 1905. Narumi Nambu, a spokesperson and volunteer for the Japan Wolf Association, advocates for the restoration of wolf species as a natural remedy for managing sika deer: “An apex predator is essential for sustainability of an ecosystem, and in Japan it was a wolf” (quoted in Zukowski). Wolves, nonetheless, remain a maligned and feared animal in the public consciousness, which the activist Hiroshi Asakura attributes to the events of the Edo period (1603–1868), when the Dog Shogun (Tokugawa Tsunayoshi) decreed dogs a protected species.

The Dog Shogun owned fifty thousand canines and the national population thus proliferated: “Packs of stray dogs roamed countrysides and cities, sometimes attacking people”; however, as Asakura observes, native wolves, not dogs, were held culpable for the attacks (Zukowski). With the native wolf species extinct, Japan’s activists endorse the introduction of wolves from Mongolia and/or China — the primary challenge, though, is “not finding wolves to translocate, but changing the mindset of the Japanese public” (Zukowski). From ecologists’ perspective, this could be a win-win solution, as it would address the deer population and restore a long-lost apex predator to Japan’s forests. Homma’s photographs succeed in encouraging viewers to reflect critically on the management of ecological crisis.

Most poignantly felt in Homma’s collection is an ineffable sense of loss linked with the secular demotion of sika deer, a species once esteemed and protected as the messengers of the gods, to the status of an intractable pest. The final photographs depict a stream along which mottled spots of blood have accumulated on the snowy banks. Again, through investigation, viewers might deduce that a wounded deer lingered at the stream and succumbed to its fatal wound. The collection’s concluding image is the only photograph of a deer carcass — the deer, too, likely wandered to the streambank with injury. Under the shallow rush of icy water, the deer, its head cocked back by the current, stares with gentle frankness — the way Nara’s medieval magistrates would prefer to recall its sacred mien. One wonders the messages it had carried.

Sebastian Charles Galbo is a co-editor for the New York University School of Medicine's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database (LitMed). His reviews and articles have appeared in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Lit Med Magazine, Callaloo, and SX Salon | Small Axe Project.

Work Cited

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