Volume 34, Issue 4, Fall 2015

Bat Myths of Japan

Separating scientific fact from cultural fiction in the island nation

Ryukyu flying fox
A Ryukyu flying fox (Pteropus dasymallus yayeyamae) in Japan.
Credit: Yushi Osawa

On the islands of Japan, word on the street has it that bats are pretty creepy. But was it always this way? Bat researchers Keiko and Yushi Osawa, who serve on the steering committee for The Bat Study and Conservation Group of Japan, help explain.

Bats: How did the Japanese people view bats in the past?

Keiko Osawa: Until the 20th century, bats were very popular in Japanese culture. Under the influence of Chinese culture, the bat was viewed as a good-luck symbol, and its image was often used in pottery, sword kilts and kimonos.

Bats: Does the word for “bat” mean anything special in Japanese?

Keiko: In Japanese, the word for “bat” is “Koumori.” There are several possible explanations as to why bats were given this name. One explanation is that it originated from the word “Kawamori,” which means protecting rivers. A second option is that it came from the word “Kawahari,” which means skin is stretched between bones. But it is also logical to believe that it was derived from “Kawahori,” which means eating mosquitoes. Regardless, it is certain that people back in the day did not have a poor image of bats.

Bats: How do the Japanese view bats now?

Yushi Osawa: These days, bats are mostly ignored, and we have fewer items with bat designs. And of those designs, a lot represent the bat as a scary creature with exaggerated fangs and red eyes. More recently, though, we have had some good books and documentaries on bats that are helping to shape a more positive opinion about them. We have begun to see some more designs that separate bats from the traditional “creepy” animal groups, like spiders, snakes and centipedes. Bat figures, mascots and other various bat accessories have also become more acceptable among modern bat crafts.

Ryukyu flying fox
Ryukyu flying fox Credit: Yushi Osawa

Bats: Does Japan have a similar holiday to Halloween where bats are featured?

Keiko: There isn’t any traditional Japanese holiday that features bats. However, Halloween has been gaining traction in Japan over the last several years, so it is not uncommon to pass by a shop that creates bat-related designs with Halloween in mind.

Bats: Surely it is not a myth that many Japanese bats are endangered, though. Are any of the Japanese bats threatened with extinction? 

Yushi: Many Japanese bat species are threatened and some species might be on the brink of extinction. Of 37 bat species in Japan, three are listed as critically endangered, five are observed as endangered, one is considered vulnerable, and four remain near threatened. The main threats to Japanese bats are increased cave tourism and land development, which unfortunately result in habitat destruction.



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