Deer Thugs of Japan
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Let’s face it, the “tame” deer in Japan are really thugs.
It’s cute when they come up to you and bow, but that behavior is designed to elicit a shika senbei (rice crackers specifically baked to feed the deer). If you don’t cough up a cracker, or if you’re too slow in handing them out, the deer will swarm you. The Japanese deer are sika deer (cervus nippon) and they’re most famously found in the deer park in Nara, Japan.
Nara was the ancient capital of Japan, even before Kyoto. Scholars are not sure why the ancient Japanese moved their capital to Kyoto, but some speculate it was to leave behind a plague or some kind of bad luck. My working thesis is that the ancient Japanese were driven out of Nara by the 1200 deer in the city, who are incredibly intrusive and pushy in their efforts to extract food from you.
When I visited Nara, it was hot and the deer were on their best behavior. But when we visited Miyajima Island, to visit Itsukushima Shrine, the deer on the island showed their true nature. I made the mistake of buying some of the deer crackers. In an instant, I had a deer mob scene with a crowd of animals pushing and shoving their way in to grab a cracker.
And, if you’re inattentive, they’re not above sneaking up behind you to steal food, too.
My wife and I bought a couple of ice cream cones and sat on a bench to enjoy them. A deer snuck up behind us, stuck his head over my wife’s shoulder, and took a bite of her ice cream. My wife was quite incensed by this theft and stood to chastise the deer, telling the deer, “Dame, dame!” (it means “No! No good!”). The human Japanese walking by were really amused to see my wife chastising the deer in Japanese. However, the deer was undeterred and we had to eat the rest of our ice cream guarding the cones while fending off the persistent animal. As a final felony, as we walked off, the deer snuck up behind me and stole a tourist map out of my back pocket. The map was printed with soy ink so that may have attracted the deer, but I suspect the theft was motivated by revenge.
In Miyajima, the deer are allowed to wander the streets freely. Historically the deer were suppose to commune with the Gods, but their behavior hints that they might also commune with hoodlums. Some deer have formed deer yakuza, or deer mafia. There’s one café called Fukuya that is habitually under siege by s group of deer. They block the entrance to the café or do their best to figure out how to work the automatic doors (so far unsuccessfully). The restaurant claims it is not feeding the deer or encouraging them, so no one seems to know why this particular restaurant has become a favorite with the local deer.
Recently the city of Nara ran a marathon race that cut through the Deer Park. As the runners came through, the deer suddenly decided that they wanted to be on the other side of the course. A stampede of deer disrupted the race and even butted one runner in the stomach.
A policeman rushed up to help (to halt the runners because the deer don’t seem impressed by the law), but he was blocked by one deer who, I have to assume, was assigned to keep authorities away.
Japan remains a very safe country, although, unfortunately, this is changing. But while you may not have to worry too much about muggers or aggressive pan handlers in Japan, please be on the lookout for four legged criminals disguised as Bambi.