Matagi are traditional hunters who live in small towns and villages in the highlands of northern Honshu, the main island of Japan. Since their origins, in the mid-16th century, they have survived thanks to self-consumption and the sale of meat, skins and other products derived from hunting. Their main prey is the Japanese black bear, a subspecies listed as vulnerable according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, these communities never face hunting as a recreational or sporting activity.
For the Matagi, Nature is a conscious presence, personified in the Goddess of the Mountain (Yama-no-Kami). She grants them permission to hunt in her domains, but in exchange expects responsible and respectful behaviour towards natural balance. If they abuse their privileges, and take more than they need, the deity would deny them her favours. The belief says that the Goddess envies and mistrusts other women, so historically they have been forbidden to enter the sacred territory of the mountains.
However, in the 21st century, the need and urgency to preserve their legacy has prevailed over their religious norms and convictions. Currently the Matagi face a more than likely extinction of their cultural heritage: the global ageing of the Japanese population, legal and regulatory limitations regarding hunting, the impact of Fukushima incidents, and the attachment to values
Ito Ryoichi, former hunter and guardian of the Matagi museum in the town of Oguni (Yamagata), poses for the camera dressed in the ancient clothes of 19th century Matagi hunters. Matagi are traditional hunters who live in small towns and villages in the highlands of northern Honshu, the main island of Japan. Since their origins as a cultural and social community in the mid of the 16th century, Matagi have survived thanks to self-consumption and the sale of meat, skins and other products derived from hunting. Nowadays they only use parts of this gear during special rituals and festivities. Until shortly before World War 2 they did not replace their spear-hunting tactics by the use of modern rifles.
Matagi’s main prey is the Japanese black bear, a subspecies listed as vulnerable according to the IUCN. Matagi, however, never face hunting as a recreational or sporting activity. For them, Nature is a conscious presence, personified in the Goddess of the Mountain (Yama-no-Kami). She grants them permission to hunt in their domains, but in exchange expects responsible and respectful behavior towards natural balance. If they abuse their privileges, and take more than they need, the deity would deny them their favors. Before proceeding to skin the bear, the paws of the animal are separated from the rest of the body. Belief dictates that parts of the bear (viscera) must remain on the mountain as an offering to the Goddess. The remaining will be distributed equally among all the participants of the hunt, regardless of who fired the final shot.
Sato, leader of one of Oguni’s Matagi communities, celebrates a successful hunt with some companions. Outside the cabin, his wife Miwa cooks and attends all their needs. In Shintoism the Mountain Goddess is traditionally described as an old witch; very ugly and envious of other women. For many centuries, women were not allowed to enter the mountains, which is considered the deity’s sacred territory. These prohibitions also affected daily life in the village: One of the taboos regarding women –which is scarcely practiced today– is the one that forbids a hunter to sleep with his wife in the month before the hunting season begins and as long as it lasts. They consider that sharing the bed with a woman –or even having dinner in the same room– during that period left them “tainted”, unable to set foot in the mountains, as it could provoke the fury of the Goddess.
Saito Shigemi indicates on the map the exact location where they will go hunting that day, explaining to his mates the strategy they will follow. He belongs to another group settled in the village of Oguni. The Matagi are not a unitary and uniform community as they are comprised by everyone who practices this lifestyle, living scattered in different villages throughout Tohoku. Only in the town of Oguni, several independent groups coexist with each other. For this reason, they must be very clear about which territory belongs to who, and delimit the borders of their hunting ground. Although not the leader, Shigemi is one of the most veteran and respected members. He is also the mentor and adoptive father within the community of Hiroko, who is considered the first Matagi woman accepted as hunter.
At dawn, Matagi leave for the mountains. For many years, Miwa has awaited and prayed alone at home, both for a successful hunt, and for the return of her husband. Until just a few decades ago, hunting expeditions lasted several days. Matagi had to go deep into the mountains just to find bear traces and due to this they were usually forced to camp halfway. Following the Fukushima incidents in 2011, and due to high radiation levels that affected wildlife itself, many Matagi communities had to cease hunting for several years. During that period the population of wild animals increased. Nowadays expeditions never last more than a day as the animals get closer to rural towns and are easier to find.
Before each hunting party, Matagi gather at little shrines in the woods, to pray for their protection and beg for fortune to the Mountain Goddess (Yama-no-Kami). The red gates represent the frontier between the earthly world of humans, and the mountain realm of the deity. Once they cross it, they are obliged to follow a strict code of conduct. The Matagi consider that everyday language is too impure to be used in sacred territory, so they developed the ‘yama-no-kotoba’, a language of their own for exclusive use in the mountains. Before the hunting season they train to master it, because if someone in the mountains says a forbidden word, they can be expelled from the expedition.
Sato draws his Matagi knife to proceed with dismembering the bear after shooting it down. The family name of his ancestors can be read engraved on the blade. Matagi fully understand and recognize where their food comes from; they face the fact that they took a life, or that a sacrifice has been made so that they could survive. These communities show not just respect for the animal but even veneration. To them, the act of consuming an animal is a kind of communion, a ritual. The Matagi believe that everything they take from the mountain are a gift from the mountain goddess. For that reason, they never gather more than necessary, and always hunt with an immense sense of responsibility and respect for the natural balance. Matagi consider themselves an equal part of the food chain, thus establishing a reciprocal bond with the ecosystem in which they live.
Ayako is one of the daughters of Tetsuo Funayama, a former 94-year-old hunter. Currently they run an ‘onsen’, a traditional Japanese inn with hot springs, in the village of Oguni. Due to the fact that in modern times hunting alone is not economically sustainable, many former hunters have had to look for labor alternatives in very diverse sectors. Inside their inn they created a small museum in which they conserve old Matagi utensils, weapons and relics. Ayako takes care of the maintenance and restoration of all objects. The traditions and beliefs of the Matagi culture have been transmitted from parents to children mainly orally. As there are hardly any written documents about their history and legacy, only these items from ancient times will prevail once their community ceases to exist. In this sense, Ayako’s conservation task is crucial in order to preserve their cultural heritage.
A photograph taken at the beginning of the 20th century shows a group of Matagi hunters from Oguni. For hundreds of years Matagi have been practising the “encompassing hunt”. This method needed a very large group to participate in the expedition. The so-called ‘Seko’ did not carry a weapon, but their role was critical since they were in charge of shouting and “driving” the bear to the place where it was intended to take him down. Currently the Matagi face a more than likely extinction of their culture: the global aging of the Japanese population, legal and regulatory limitations regarding hunting, the impact of Fukushima incidents, and the attachment to values that no longer germinate among younger generations –who migrate massively from the rural environment to the city– are the main reasons their numbers are dwindling, leaving these communities without much hope of perpetuating themselves.
Hiroko Ebihara is considered the first Matagi woman. She is the best scout of the group for which her mission is to locate the bear on the slopes of the mountain. In the current context, the first cases of Matagi women have recently emerged after five centuries of history. Women who claim equality start being part of a primary activity that traditionally was reserved for men. Hiroko was an art student and spent long days at the zoo drawing animals. However, she could not get enough inspiration because she needed to portray the authentic essence of wildlife. That was one of the main reasons why she abandoned everything and started a new life in rural areas, eventually becoming a Matagi hunter. Hiroko’s case could be a turning point, an example to those communities concerned about their cultural extinction, and a demonstration that also young people can follow this lifestyle.