VOX POPULI: Japan's lost wildlife lives on in haiku

September 03, 2012

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

The anniversary of the death of haiku poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), which falls on Sept. 19, is known as "Hechima-ki" (Loofah anniversary), but it also has another name, "Dassai-ki" (Otter's ceremony anniversary).

The first kanji character in "dassai" is also read as "kawauso," which means "otter" in Japanese.

A haiku by Yukiko Kutsuwada goes: "It is Dassai-ki/ I, too, am from Iyo Province (present-day Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku)."

The otter is said to lay out the fish it has caught on the riverbank, as if to ceremoniously dedicate them to the gods before eating them. "Kawauso uo wo matsuru" (the otter dedicates fish) is a "kigo," or seasonal phrase, used in haiku to refer to spring.

Shiki likened himself to the otter for leaving his books scattered around his home, and playfully called himself "Dassai Sho-oku Shujin" (Otter Bookstore Owner), which is how the anniversary of his death came to be known as "Dassai-ki."

This year, I can imagine Shiki burning sticks of incense up in heaven to mourn the extinction of the Japanese river otter.

After the last sighting in Kochi Prefecture 30 years ago, the species remained on the endangered list until the Environment Ministry finally declared it extinct in late August. The first mammal to go extinct after surviving into the Showa Era (1926-1989), the Japanese river otter is a tragic victim of urban development and other human activities.

I went to Kochi some years ago to report on local attempts to find these animals. There was something humorous about their antics, judging from the stories that the locals told about them.

For instance, once an otter slithered between the legs of a child playing in the river. Another got angry and bit someone who tried to put a straw hat on it. And then there was a fisherman who was placidly taking a smoke break in his boat when an otter suddenly popped its head out of the water, as if to say, "Surprise!"

We will probably never see such antics again.

"Yamainu kemono wo matsuru" (the wolf dedicates animals) is an autumn kigo used in haiku. Like the otter, the wolf was also believed to dedicate its captured prey to the gods.

But the Japanese wolf, too, was hunted down by humans, and it went extinct toward the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

A century later, we humans have added the playful Japanese river otter to the list of extinct species. Shiki must be angry with our wicked generation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 2

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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