Oribe Gohara:
As a social anthropologist, you have undertaken extensive field research in mountain villages on the Kii peninsula, Japan on a range of topics, such as hunting, farming, forestry, and people-wildlife conflicts. Your recent works have been on the relations between people and macaques (Macaca fuscata), observed in Japanese monkey parks as a site of wildlife tourism. The main themes throughout your research works seem to be the dynamics of the human-animal relationships that have been observed in Japan today. Could you tell us how you got interested in these topics? Are there any reasons that you have chosen the rural mountain area of Japan as your main field site? I am interested in asking these questions as I also have been doing research on people-wildlife conflicts in a mountainous village in Miyazaki.

John Knight:
Back in the 1980s I came to Japan as a PhD student and studied rural depopulation in mountain villages in Wakayama – a place called Hongu-cho. I stayed nearly three years in Hongu, focusing on humans, that is human mobility, such as people moving away to the city, but also these migrants visiting their hometown at Obon and New Year… that kind of thing. In the end, my PhD thesis covered tourists (Hongu has some famous onsen) and settlers (‘I-turners’) as well as the outmigrants, but my main interest was in why local people left and, especially, in the effects of this outmigration on the village left behind.

I consider that the first stage of my research in Japan. As for animals, they weren’t absent completely – the villages were surrounded by forest in which animals lived – but they were only in the background of the study. In the 1990s, I returned to Hongu for further field research and it was then that I really became interested in the animals of the forest and in the relationship between people leaving the village (and giving up farming) and forest animals entering the village and feeding in farmland or (in the case of abandoned farmland) exploiting it for cover and so on.

I first became interested in monkey parks in the late 1990s. I visited the Isegatani park in Wakayama with somebody from Hongu. I actually visited the Tsubaki area where the park is because I had heard that there was significant monkey crop damage near the park, and so you could say my introduction to monkey parks was really just as a source of the crop-raiding problem faced by local farmers.

But monkey parks are fascinating places in their own right, not just as potential hotbeds of engai (‘monkey damage’). After my first visit to Isegatani, I took every chance I got to return there or to visit other parks in other parts of Japan. Eventually, this experience broadened my perspective on monkeys and the human-monkey relationship in Japan. More generally, I came to think that, rather than just look at human-animal conflict in the villages, it would make sense to learn about a different side of the human-animal relationship in Japan, namely wildlife tourism. Not just wild animals as a farming pest, but wild animals as a tourism resource too.

In studying the monkey parks, then, I moved from the theme of human conflict with monkeys to that of human attraction to monkeys. During the 2000s. I visited monkey parks all across Japan, though the one I became especially familiar with was Choshikei Monkey Park on Shodoshima. Unlike most other parks, it still allowed its visitors to feed monkeys freely outdoors. That is probably the monkey park I know best. I got to know the staff well.

The Choshikei park became my main monkey park field site and I continue to visit it whenever I get the chance (my last visit was in 2018). But my monkey park research involved a very different kind of fieldwork from my original long-stay fieldwork in the mountain villages of Wakayama. I stayed continuously in the Hongu villages for nearly three years, but my monkey park research was based on lots of short visits. Even on Shodoshima, my visits are never more than a few weeks.

The People-Wildlife Conflicts in the Mountainous Areas in Japan

When it comes to examining human-wildlife relations in contemporary Japan, it is important to consider the recent changes in the natural and social environment, especially the experiences of rural areas. In Natural enemies*1 and Waiting for wolves in Japan*2, you discussed the characteristics of the mountainous areas in Japan today. According to your argument, human depopulation in those areas has occurred as a result of outmigration in search of jobs in the urban centers. The diminished human presence in the woodlands means less activities of forestry and farming, and that leads to weaker ability of people to resist the pressure of forest wildlife. You highlighted that this process which leads to people-wildlife conflicts is peculiar to forested areas in Japan. Could you tell us a little more about the peculiarity of the phenomenon in terms of the human-animal relations in Japan? Today, problems of the rural-urban divide, depopulation and the people-wildlife conflicts are more severe than before in Japan. How do you see these transformations in relation to human-wildlife relations?

In terms of humans leaving for urban areas and wild animals entering these rural spaces, in English we use the word “encroachment.” As a social anthropologist, my approach to that would be in terms of how people understand that situation and their understanding of it as a kind of change. A major change in their living environment. For mountain villagers, the boundary between village and forest is quite important.

Yes, they distinguish them quite often.

When animals enter the village, or even when animals live at the edge, villagers seem to experience this as a kind of disorder, an abnormal situation. What kind of disorder? One way of answering this might be to start from the premise that when we humans populate a place, as in the case of Japanese mountain villagers, they do not do so exclusively but overlap with various nonhuman populations. And that living in such a place requires an active human presence there.

This line of thinking has gradually led me to a different understanding of depopulation. At first, I tended to think of rural depopulation simply in terms of numbers. A bit like the numbers that are available at the yakuba (town government office), where staff talk about population decline. One tends to get the impression that kaso is a quantitative or numerical problem, simply to do with the declining number of people. But I have come to believe that kaso is not just quantitative but also qualitative and it has to do with the reduction of human activity in the living space of the mountain village. Put simply, to live effectively in a mountain village you have to live actively there. Conversely, I came to understand kaso as a state of diminished environmental activity. Not just fewer people, but also those people remaining doing less – less farming, less weeding and vegetation removal, and even moving around the village and the nearby forest less. Put another way, rural depopulation can be usefully considered as environmental deactivation, and this decline in human activity creates a situation that forest animals come to exploit. So, I think that’s one way that rural depopulation and wildlife encroachment can come together.

You’re also asking about transformations of human-wildlife relations in relation to the rural-urban divide? I wondered about how animals see humans. Japanese folklorists and others sometimes use the term NINGEN-NO-DOBUTSUKAN. That is a fascinating area of research: how humans see animals. But I think what we might call DOBUTSU-NO-NINGENKAN – how animals see humans – is also quite interesting. That’s a big issue today in rural Japan where forest animals appear to have lost their fear of humans and behave more boldly. This can in turn lead the human side to react by trying to restore the animal fear of humans such as by mobilizing people to chase animals away or frighten them in other ways (what we might call restorative counter habituation).

This of course presents a contrast to what happens in wildlife tourism. Monkey parks can only exist where monkeys lose much of their former fear of humans. They call themselves ‘wild monkey parks,’ but it might be more accurate to call them ‘tame monkey parks.’ This is ‘tame’ in the sense of habituated, though park monkeys might be better described as superhabituated! Humans originally fed them to tame them – in the sense of reducing their fear of humans so that they can tolerate the close-up presence of the tourists who come to see them. Although monkey boldness is a problem for farmers, it is a precondition for the monkey park to operate.

The Boundaries of Human and Non-Human Territories

As we discussed earlier, the people-wildlife conflicts are deeply concerned with the issue of the boundary between human territory and wildlife. Do you think those issues of the mobility of habitats, and the inter-species relationships have become apparent in the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic too? It is said that the deforestation and the destruction of bats’ habitat have increased the chances of human-bats contacts, and transmitted the virus from bats to humans. Also, we observe that there are many cases reported in the world that COVID-19 lockdowns have unintended benefits for natural environments. As people stay at home for a period of time, the air and water get cleaner, and the number of animals increases. How do you observe the relationships among the virus, animals, and humans, as well as the issue of their boundaries?

I think that’s a very interesting question, but I must be honest, I don’t know so much about this. What I would say is that during these past few months I have half-wished that I could go to Japan at this time, and visit monkey parks (when they re-opened). It would be interesting to see what difference the COVID situation makes to the parks. Given the apparent wildlife origins of COVID-19 that you point out, people may well become more sensitive about interacting with wildlife, including the monkeys of the parks. I can imagine that. I wonder what difference that makes to the kind of contact that occurs between tourists and monkeys in the parks.

My impression is that it may lead the parks to limit visitor contact with monkeys, especially visitors feeding the monkeys. I think that could be the case. Some parks don’t allow visitors to feed monkeys, but other parks do. They allow people to feed monkeys by hand, and I suspect that that may change. We could say that ‘social distancing’ is likely to be applied not just to inter-human contact in the park, but also to human-monkey contact there.

I’m quite interested in humans feeding animals. Feeding monkeys by hand (tewatashi) is a very high-contact form of feeding. I would expect there to be much more sensitivity about that. Maybe some parks will continue to allow visitors to feed monkeys, but require them to throw the food rather than hand or pass the food to monkeys. Your question made me think about that. I think it would have an effect on human contact with wild animals more generally and have particular implications for wildlife tourism.

It is interesting to listen to your idea that the COVID-19 pandemic situation would not only impact on the human-human distance, but also possibly on the human-monkey ‘social distancing.’

Theories on Human-Animal Interactions

Could you tell us about your theoretical orientations in analyzing human-animal relationships? In your study about crop raiding by wild animals in Wakayama, you analyzed the images and symbolic meanings of animals to show how mountain villagers perceive them in their everyday lives. While those studies are mainly concerned with the conflict between human and animals, in Animals in Person*3, you focused more on the themes of cross-species intimacies, and explored how people attribute human emotions and intelligence to animals. It seems that it is one of the earliest anthropological studies that focuses on animal personhood.

In terms of my own approach to human-animal relations, as I said, I began by focusing on conflict between mountain villagers and forest animals over crop damage, and later became interested in human attraction to animals. You mentioned those two edited books, Natural Enemies and then Animals in Person.

Animals in Person was an attempt to look at the other side of human-animal relations and look at the appeal that animals have for humans. And I suppose that takes us to areas like our interest in animals that are similar to us humans, such as animals with some kind of degree of emotion or intelligence comparable to humans. Animals that we can communicate with.

In terms of theory, in relation to conflict with animals, at one stage I used a kind of anthropological theory informed by structuralism, which we might call anomaly theory. which holds that things that do not readily fit into bounded categories tend to be seen as problematic or disorderly or ‘anomalous.’ Applying this to animals, we might predict that where an animal seems to defy cultural categorization, it will be deemed an anomalous animal and merit special cultural attention. Monkeys or other nonhuman primates, including great apes, can be seen as ‘anomalous’ because in various ways – anatomically, behaviourally, cognitively – they fall between animals and human categories, similar to but different from us, neither one thing nor the other.

This kind of ‘boundary-breaching’ thinking could be extended to crop-damaging animals that move from the forest to the village and back to the forest and seem to breach important spatial boundaries, raising the possibility that they too are a kind of anomalous animal. This was a theme that informed some of the contributions to the Natural Enemies book.

Nowadays, I have a greater interest in human interactions with animals, rather than just human representations of animals. One of the things that appeals to me about monkey parks is that they are a good place for studying or learning about human-monkey interaction.

When you talk about human-animal interactions, are there any specific theories in your mind? Because when I listened to your explanation about anomaly, I thought about Mary Douglas. I thought there might be a particular theory to examine their interactions.

Maybe people like Erving Goffman. Goffman can provide some inspiration because he was quite interested in human-human interaction, whether one-to-one or one-to-many interactions. Obviously, primatologists can tell us a lot about monkeys, especially how they interact with one another – the hierarchical sociality of Japanese macaques. And we can use that template to try to understand how they interact with humans. Or, the other way, we can work from how we humans interact with one another to make sense of how we then interact anthropomorphically with monkeys, treating monkeys as though they were people or children and so on. However, actual human-monkey interactions might be something different. My approach is to look at a particular interaction and try to find out what is happening.

I am also curious about your chapter in the Nature and Society*4, edited by Philippe Descola and Gísli Pálsson. What kind of discussions did yyou have with them in terms of your chapter and discussions on nature/animals?

A key theme of the book was that of challenging nature-society dualism, and looking at human contact with nature from a sort of non-dualistic or ‘monistic’ perspective. In my chapter on Japanese timber plantations and their neglect, I tried to contribute to that theme. My idea was that it’s not just the village that depopulates, but the forest too, especially the untended plantation forest. When human hands become estranged from the conifer trees they planted. When that normative unity between human and tree breaks down. This connects with what I was saying earlier, that human activity helps to constitute human-environment relationships. I feel that’s a strong feeling among residents in upland Japan. I’m still interested in that theme, but apply it more generally to the upland environment in Japan and not just to conifer plantations.

In a recent paper I used the term “environmental activity gap*5.” In that paper I identified various ‘activity gaps’ in upland Japan and described the attempts to fill these gaps and revive the human connection to the land and restore environmental order. These activity gap-filling efforts include getting villagers to repel and chase away monkeys and other animals more, what is known as ‘oiharai’ activity. Or it could be cutting away vegetation at the edge of the village, perhaps cutting down trees there, to remove cover and stop the animal encroachment. There is a major difference between the environment that is subject to such human activity and the environment that lacks it.

Multi-Cited and Multi-Species Ethnography

There seems to be an increasingly popular trend of using multi-sited approaches as a methodology for doing fieldwork. This approach seems rather different from ‘classic’ anthropological ways of doing fieldwork, like Malinowski’s participant observation. How do you think the multi-sited approach would help us to add new insights into human-nature relations? An increasing number of works use this methodology to examine the relationships between the natural environment and people in contemporary Japan to write multi-species ethnographies (e.g. Satsuka 2014; Tsing 2017). Multi-species ethnography is another trend to analyze human-nonhuman relations. How do you see these methodological, theoretical trends?

Yes, I think multi-sited fieldwork – fieldwork in more than one place – can work well. It depends, of course, on your topic. My original fieldwork in Hongu-cho was, I suppose, basically single-place fieldwork – the municipality (though it consisted of a large number of settlements spread out over a wide area). But I suppose that multi-sited fieldwork is about doing research in different kinds of places that each form an important part of the topic of study rather than just studying lots of examples of the same kind of place. With respect to rural depopulation, it might therefore means looking at the cities where migrants go to rather than just the villages they move from. The closest I came to this was visiting Osaka to meet with people from Hongu-cho who had settled there, including Wakayama kenjinkai meetings (for Osaka residents originating from Wakayama). Another category of city people I became interested in were those who had joined what is known as a furusatokai (literally ‘hometown association’) based in Hongu-cho. The furusatokai is a business in which Hongu people sold rural food to urban residents, most of whom were not related to the village (some were former tourists). The urban members got sent a parcel containing hometown food produce each season. (The idea was that Hongu become their dai no furusato or ‘second hometown.’) I visited cities to interview some of these urban consumers of Hongu food to find out about this fictive home connection. That’s probably the closest that I’ve come to practicing multi-sited fieldwork my Hongu research.

As for practicing multi-sited fieldwork to human-animal relations, I can see the potential of that. For example, the topic of the meat-animal relations, that could work quite well, couldn’t it? I can imagine that you could do a sort of a multi-sited study of the meat trade and include the producers, maybe the hunters, the middleman, the company selling those products, and then the consumers in the city. I can imagine how that kind of fieldwork could be a multi-sited study.

As you raised an example of the meat-animal relations, the multi-sited approach seems to work well to follow commodity chains, such as, Matsutake in the case of Anna Tsing’s writing, how those products have been produced, and transformed into goods, and finally consumed by consumers. This method allows us to follow all these processes and networks of actors involved. I think Anna Tsing used a multi-sited approach to show these sequences that are involved with human-nonhuman relations by using Matsutake as an example.

Are you interested in employing multi-sited fieldwork in your own research on hunters in Miyazaki?

Yes, my colleague and I conduct multi-sited ethnography on commercialization of deer and wild boar meat in Miyazaki, which is called jibie nowadays*6. We have found that commercialization of wild meat brought into local communities new actors such as a visiting parasitologist who is interested in studying possible parasite infection in human and hunting dogs. This new development forced us to look beyond the mountainous villages and visit laboratories, restaurants, and marketing consultants.

The Macaque-People Relationships in Japan

Your recent studies have focused on the relationships between macaques and people, on a wide range of topics including crop damage, wild monkey parks, and the use of monkeys for tourism. You examined wild monkey parks as sites for primatology and tourism. In your approach to studying monkey-human relationships, do you include the perspectives of primatologists?

I think the tradition of social anthropology in which I have been trained is an anthropocentric one in which the focus is on humans, with animals treated as part of the human environment.

Alternatively, we anthropologists could look at animals by treating them as fellow subjects, often overlapping with humans in shared spaces, nonhuman actors experiencing a common space in a different way. When it comes to humans and monkeys – fellow primates – we would expect a mix of similarity and difference in the way they experience the world, the way they act as members of groups and so on. I’m moving towards this kind of approach, which approaches the human-monkey relationship by focusing on the monkey perspective rather than just the human one.

This requires some familiarity with primatology, especially of course the work of Japanese primatologists in the case of Japanese macaques. Primatology played an important role in the emergence of the monkey park sector. But even more fundamentally, primatology can help us make sense of monkey behavior. Otherwise, my account would just be of the human perspective on the relationship with monkeys – say that of the workers and tourists in the monkey park or the villagers defending their fields from monkeys.

You asked how we can understand the monkey perspective. We can to the extent that we know how the monkey troop works, how hierarchy or rank order between monkeys works, and how monkeys behave around food. I have a strong interest in inter-monkey competition for food. When Japanese macaques compete for food, rank hierarchy is very important. This becomes quite clear when you watch people feed monkeys in the monkey park, or indeed when you feed them yourself (as I sometimes do). It’s not one-to-one, because there are other monkeys begging nearby. Often visitors, when they give food to a monkey, think it’s a one-to-one situation, but it’s actually one-to-many because, from the monkey sees itself as competing with other monkeys nearby to “get food.” Park visitors tend not to have a very accurate understanding of the esayari feeding interaction. It may at first seem like a one-to-one interaction, but it’s actually much more complicated than that. And pimatology helps use to appreciate that*7.

Could you tell us about your next line of research?

I wrote a book about monkey parks some years ago, in which I examined the organization of monkey parks and how they work. I looked at the monkey park as an open-range system of monkey display, in contrast to the system of captive display found in the zoo*8. More recently, I have been working on a book about recreational hand-feeding of monkeys by park visitors, on how it has evolved over time, and on how it can go wrong and lead to problems.

I am also interested in recreational feeding of animals more generally in Japan. Esayari is widespread in Japan, whether in the form of roadside and backyard feeding, feeding in public parks, feeding pigeons in front of stations, or feeding stray cats. This year, I haven’t been able to visit Japan, but, when I next get the chance, I would like to look more closely at sites of food transfer away from the monkey parks, involving other kinds of animals.