After the first dinosaur footprints ever discovered in Japan were found in Kanna in rural Gunma Prefecture in 1985, the tiny town began promoting itself as a "dinosaur kingdom," the country's version of "Jurassic Park."
And like visiting the "Jurassic Park" island in the hit film series, traveling to Kanna seems equally as difficult.
From Tokyo, getting to Kanna can easily take more than three hours, requiring two forms of public transportation (shinkansen bullet and local trains, bus). Driving to the town deep in the mountains is also difficult as the winding and curving roads induce motion sickness in even the most veteran traveler.
However, once there, visitors are in for a curious sight. The town of 2,300 residents has a dinosaur museum. As soon as dinosaur statues are sighted in front of the museum in the quiet Japanese countryside, visitors may wonder: how does a dinosaur-themed museum stay in business this far out in the wilderness?
However, the Kanna Dinosaur Center is attracting 15 times more visitors annually than the number of residents in Kanna, says Katsuhiro Kubota, the museum curator. The center, which opened in 1987, two years after the discovery of the footprints, features replicas of Mongolian dinosaur fossils, including the world-famous depiction of a pair of dinosaurs fighting.
Dinosaur exhibitions in Japan attract otaku, children and more
Yuji Takakuwa, a core member of the Japanese paleontological society, says, “Dinosaur exhibitions, along with insect shows, are recognized as events that draw a large audience.”
In Japan, three regional governments own a dinosaur-themed museum: Kanna; Mifune town in southern Kumamoto Prefecture; and Fukui Prefecture in the west.
In addition, 35 science museums across the country, from Hokkaido to Kagoshima, have permanent dinosaur exhibitions--whether displaying a few small fossils or featuring several full-scale skeletons, says Takakuwa, who works as a curator at the Gunma Museum of Natural History.
Eighteen special exhibitions are being held this year at museums and other venues, he adds.
Makuhari Messe, a major convention hall in the Tokyo area that hosts a large dinosaur exhibition almost every year, opened a special exhibition on July 21. Organizers of the 60-day event with 70 full-scale skeletons expect to draw a half-million spectators, while Pacifico Yokohama, a larger hall in Yokohama, will host a similar event simultaneously.
So why the dinosaur craze?
Makoto Manabe, a leading dinosaur scholar in Japan, says the popularity of dinosaurs is more widespread than in the United States or Britain, where he spent years studying. The senior scientist at National Museum of Nature and Science also notes that it is only in Japan where even adults get hooked on going to dinosaur shows.
Until the 1978 discovery of the humerus of a dinosaur, named "Moshiryu," in Iwate Prefecture, no dinosaur fossils were found in Japan.
"Considering its geology, Japan had been believed to be incapable of producing dinosaur fossils," Manabe says. "But after Moshiryu, research started everywhere in the country."
Dinosaur fossils have been excavated in 18 prefectures so far, according to Manabe. Regional natural science museums are displaying locally found dinosaur fossils.
Natural science, though, has always been popular with children in Japan, thanks to its depiction in pop culture.
The iconic “Godzilla” movie series has inspired many of today’s paleontologists, also in other countries, Manabe says.
“Doraemon,” a Japanese science fiction manga featuring a robotic cat from the future, has a particularly popular episode featuring a Futabasaurus suzukii, a genus of plesiosaur found in Fukushima Prefecture in 1973. First released in 1975, the story “Nobita no Kyoryu" (Nobita’s dinosaur) has been made into two films.
Growing up in such an environment, some adults rekindle their childhood interest in dinosaurs as parents. Manabe, who gives 30 lectures to general audiences a year, has observed even parents turning into dinosaur fans.
“At first, moms come, just to accompany their children,” Manabe says. “Then they return to my talks with their kids, who are now teenagers, and sit apart because their kids don’t want to be seen with them. After their kids lose interest in dinosaurs, they come alone.”
Robert Sinclair, a mathematical biology scholar and researcher at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, agrees with Manabe that adults make up a large part of the audience. The Australian also finds that Japanese adults have higher levels of science literacy, compared to his home country and Germany, where he has studied. It is seen in how science stories often make for top news stories in Japanese media, such as the recent discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which give mass to matter.
“NHK (public broadcaster) has high-quality dinosaur programs,” Sinclair adds. “If the public doesn’t have enough scientific literacy, you can’t make TV programs like that.”
At the Kanna Dinosaur Center, two-thirds of visitors are, in fact, high school students or older, museum curator Kubota says.
A few kilometers from the center is a rock wall with three sets of dinosaur footprints, which strike awe in visitors. Kubota explains that the roadside rock was shallow sandy beach more than a hundred million years ago, which dinosaurs walked on. Two sets of footprints zigzagging diagonally stand out today. What were they doing?
“We can only guess what really happened,” says Kubota, who was inspired by the Doraemon movie to be a paleontologist. “It stirs so much imagination, and there is no end to it.”
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