The holy deer of Nara
The deer and does of Nara
The deer of Nara are a quaint leftover which reminds of the whilom relationship between human beings and animals. Nara is a town with about 400.000 inhabitants and is located in the south of the main island Honshu. Originally, Nara was residence of the nobleness family Fujiwara which had their family shrine there – the huge Kasuga-Shrine (Kasuga Taisha) for the adoration of their ancestors. The shrine is linked with the Buddhistic temple Kôfuku-ji. A typical mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism which were also subordinate to the family Fujiwara.
Deities on deer
The four deities of the Kasuga-Shrine are riding on deer. Therefore it was not allowed to lend a hand with the nature of the widespread forest of the Kasuga-Shrine; deer and does were under the special protection of family Fujiwara and of the temple and those deer and does lost their timidity of human beings. Since then, more than 1000 years have past and the Nara-deer have proliferated naturally.
Deer without timidity
That is the reason why today, about 1200 deer populate the forest in which the Kasuga-Shrine and the temple Kôfuku-ji is located. You can meet them on the streets and places everywhere in Nara. In 1998, a completely white deer was born. This Deer is deified as Momo since he commemorates a Buddhistic legend. Albinos are deified as „holy“ creatures or as talismans in the complete Asiatic region. Unfortunately, Momo is weakly and it cannot live together with the other deer. Once a year, a big festival takes place in Kasuga-Shrine. At this festival all deer heads are shortened. Therefore, Nara-deer have no big horns and the risk is kept within a limit to be taken on the deer’s head.
Love of animals in Japanese
All deer are fed with rice cookies which are backed just for this reason. Nara, a refuge of the whilom vegetarian tradition? Far from it! Yakitori and Gyudon, Sushi and Sukiyaki, Beef- and Chicken burger unfortunately "please” the pepole in Nara, as well.
The only comfort: you can vainly search for deer goulash in red wine sauce in the different restaurants of town. What has remained of the whilom vegetarian utopia? Not much. At most, the historic proof that it is absolutely possible to nourish vegetarian for a whole nation. And in well-managed Ryokans, which are the traditional and obscenely expensive guesthouses in Japan, they still know the vegetarian viands which are a real culinary and eye’s delight.
So, not much has remained; the west has made a good job of it – the disaster came from the west. But: some groups of animal protection and animal rights made their business to lead Japan back in the direction of their vegetarian roots. First and foremost SASA Japan and ALIVE and first, little prosperities result from these groups (see:www.tierrechteportal.de/Sasa/index.html). Concluding, we like to hope that Japan will find the way back to its roots some day.
Live stock levels off
The phenomenon of the Nara-deer is really interesting as it is a fact that no animal has shot dead and no animal was fixed for many centuries. But for all that the live stock has remained steady. Of course, some deer lose their lives due to the road traffic but this proves the correctness of the assumption that animals have their own system to regulate their live stock without the intervention of human beings. And secondly: animals loose their timidity if human beings do not haunt and kill them. Therefore: confidence is natural, not timidity!
Photos on this page: Gunda Niedermeyer & Thomas Lottermoser www.gunda-und-thomas-in-japan.de
Stefan Bernhard Eck, director/ spokesperson research group animal rights & ethics A.K.T.E. (www.tierrechteportal.de - www.frasskultur.de): At this point I would like to thank Lydia Tanabe who supported my research for this article. Lydia Tanabe is living in Japan for more than 15 years and she is originator and director of SASA (Small Animals support association, www.sasajapan.org) and collaborator/ resort far east at A.K.T.E.