Deer oh Deer

An image of a deer, regarded as sacred messengers of the gods, adorns a lantern at Kasuga-jinja shrine in Nara. 

If there is one season par excellence in The Tale of Genji, it is autumn. This momentous book, written over a millennium ago and which has fair claims for being both the world’s first novel as well as the finest literary work in Japanese, is imbued with the spirit of mono no aware, which literally means the “pathos of things.” And its autumnal images most poignantly evoke the sorrow and sadness of human existence. Almost all the most remarkable scenes in Genji take place in autumn months among such images as the silently falling leaves, the rain gently moistening the last fading flowers, the gathering mists. And there is also the doleful cry of deer from the windswept hills.

Deer in Japan belong to the species known as sika in English, the English name deriving from shika, the Japanese word for “deer.” Sika are medium-sized deer that were once prevalent over much of East Asia, extending as far north as Russia. In many of their former Asian haunts, sika are on the verge of extinction. But that is certainly not the case in Japan, where there is no dearth whatsoever of the beasts. For millennia, the deer population was held in check by Japanese wolves. But when the wolves were hunted to extinction in the early twentieth century, the deer faced no natural enemies.

Deer have long been hunted by the Japanese, but when humans began to lose interest in hunting the creatures, the deer began to make a pest of themselves. Deer can cause great harm to forests, killing trees by stripping the bark, and they account for a hefty percentage of the crop damage in Japan caused by animals. Collisions with deer also result in problems and delays with train services. The deer danger became so bad in Wakayama Prefecture that East Japan Railway (JR) hit on the novel tactic of spreading lion dung from a local animal adventure park on its tracks. The ploy worked for a while. But then the deer became used to the smell, lost their fear and stopped avoiding the lines. But perhaps it wasn’t all long faces at JR East when the leonine ruse failed, as one JR worker confessed, “The stuff smelled just awful!”

Back in ancient times when the Japanese would have known nothing about a lion or its products, deer were an important food source. And also in ancient Japan, deer were widely used in divination. The shoulder blade of the animal was heated and then from the size, shape and number of cracks that developed, soothsayers went about fulfilling their job descriptions.

Deer later came to assume rather different spiritual associations in Nara, not far from Kyoto and the country’s capital in the eighth century. Deer are seen everywhere in the green western part of this pleasant city, but they are nothing like the timid creatures encountered in Japan’s forests. The deer have long been regarded as sacred messengers of the gods of Kasuga-jinja shrine, a Shinto place of worship in that part of Nara. And one of the perks of the deer’s divine status is utter fearlessness in shaking down any passing tourist if they think there may be a snack at the end of it.

Like Nara, the island of Itsukushima, close by Hiroshima, is a spot where deer know full well that they are allowed to boldly go. In the case of Itsukushima, this is because the deer have long been protected from hunting on this sacred island.

Both Itsukushima and Nara are good places for visitors to hear for themselves the sound of deer, notably the eerie sound of the male from early October, at the start of the mating season. For Ki no Tsurayuki, a major poet of the Heian period (794–1185) that produced The Tale of Genji, so closely does he identify the sound of the deer with autumn that, in this delightful poem, he finds it hard to separate the season from its greatest vocal symbol:

Now from Ogura,

mountain of the dusky moon,

come cries of deer. 

Will autumn vanish in the dark

while their voices still echo in the hills?


David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.

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