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In Rural Fukushima, 'The Border Between Monkeys And Humans Has Blurred'

Sep 10, 2020
Originally published on September 15, 2020 2:45 pm

Shuichi Kanno rips tape off the top of a large cardboard box at his house in the mountains in Fukushima prefecture in Japan. He opens the box and rustles around to pull out pack after pack of long, thin Roman candle fireworks. The words "Animal Exterminating Firework" are written in Japanese on the side of each canister.

Kanno has been battling hordes of macaque monkeys that have encroached upon his neighborhood in a rural area of Minamisoma. These fireworks are his main deterrent — not to cause the monkeys any physical harm, but to scare them away with a loud bang. That is, until they regain their confidence and come back a few days later, which they do like clockwork, Kanno says.

Kanno stacks fireworks on his coffee table to distribute to neighbors. The fireworks make a loud noise meant to scare, not injure, the monkeys.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"In the early morning while I'm sleeping, just when I'm about to wake up, I hear the noise," the 79-year-old says in Japanese as he stacks the fireworks on his living room table. "The sound of the monkeys running around on the roof, getting into the gardens, eating all my food. I have to fight them."

Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated this area nine years ago, fleeing plumes of radioactive material after three reactors exploded at the Daiichi nuclear power plant, one of the most serious nuclear disasters in history. Whole towns and neighborhoods like Kanno's were left empty of human life for years — and, much like Chernobyl, nature started to reclaim the space. Plants poke through sidewalks and buildings, while wild boar, raccoons and foxes roam the streets. But in recent years, many evacuation orders have lifted and people have started to return, meaning humans and animals are having to figure out new ways to coexist — or not.

A macaque monkey in a tree in Fukushima prefecture. After the 2011 nuclear disaster, towns and neighborhoods in Fukushima were left devoid of humans for years, and nature started to reclaim the space.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"The monkeys never used to come here, but after the disaster, the border between monkeys and humans has blurred," Kanno explains. "The houses were empty, but the gardens were still growing — plums, pears, chestnuts, persimmons. It was a wonderland for monkeys, an all-you-can-eat buffet. And they remembered that."

His neighborhood is on the very edge of the evacuation area, relatively far from Daiichi. People stayed away for only a few years, but by the time they came back, the monkeys had become comfortable. And, Kanno points out, half the houses are still empty and only older people came back. They just don't have the numbers they need to win the battle against the monkeys without backup.

From left: Shuichi Kanno, Shigeko Hoshino, Hiroyuki Shima and Hachiro Endo are neighbors who moved back to Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and who get regular visits from monkeys that eat fruits and vegetables from their gardens.
Claire Harbage / NPR

That is where the fireworks come in, subsidized by the local government after residents complained. The governments here have provided several different kinds of tools, such as wild boar traps and electric fences for farmers, to help communities with animal problems.

Yuriko Kanno, 75, Shuichi's wife, comes into the living room, looks at the pile of fireworks and laughs. "I've been worried that this village is going to become like that movie, the monkey planet one," she says, referring to Planet of the Apes. "I've seen it — it could happen!"

She walks away giggling. Shuichi Kanno is laughing too. The monkeys are annoying, yes, but they're also a source of entertainment for the aging residents, he concedes.

Yuriko Kanno, 75, is amused by the battle between her husband and the monkeys.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"Look, I think they're cute. I would absolutely never hurt them," he says. "None of this is their fault. It's nuclear power's fault. It's the fault of humans."

Shuichi Kanno is a leader in the neighborhood, and he's in charge of distributing the fireworks to any of his neighbors who want them. The neighbors all have to sign an agreement saying they understand the dangers and — most importantly, he says — that they will not hurt any animals.

He loads the fireworks into the trunk of his car and drives down forest roads from house to house, dropping off packs of fireworks at every stop. As he drives, he points to all the natural beauty in the area. The nuclear disaster didn't just change his relationship with monkeys, he says.

"I loved hiking, and foraging for wild vegetables, finding wild mushrooms. But now it's so dangerous," Kanno explains, referring to the high levels of radioactive cesium still present in the dense forests here. "We can't have a relationship with nature anymore. It's gone."

Kanno drives his truck down a main road in his neighborhood, chasing monkeys that he saw scampering around his house not long ago.
Claire Harbage / NPR

He pulls up to the house of Hachiro Endo, 77, whose family has been in the area for generations. The home has a beautiful garden in front and long strands of drying persimmons hanging in the garage.

Endo is delighted by the delivery. He has gone through his entire stockpile protecting his garden. "I'm alert all the time," Endo sighs. "The monkeys, they've taken over my life."

He says he remembers a time when he was little and his grandfather tried to lure the monkeys down from the mountains into the village, hoping to boost tourism to the area by becoming a monkey town. He was never successful — the macaques were too afraid of humans to come down and stay.

"If only he could see it now," he says with a laugh.

A troop of monkeys scampers across a road in Fukushima prefecture.
Claire Harbage / NPR

A few days later, Kanno is out on monkey patrol. He has just seen a troop of monkeys running from his house out into the neighborhood. He's wearing knee-high rubber boots, a bright orange jacket and a baseball cap while clutching a firework in one hand and the steering wheel of his pickup truck in the other.

He drives slowly, leaning forward to scan the hills as he goes. And then suddenly, he slams on his brakes.

"There they are!" he shouts, pointing behind a shed. Dozens of monkeys are jumping toward the forest, scrambling up trees and crawling up the hillside.

He jumps out of the truck and pulls the firework from underneath his jacket, loading it onto a kind of stick so he can hold it far away. He lights the fuse and smiles, pointing it toward the hill.

Kanno grins after shooting off a firework to scare off monkeys that were roaming through the neighborhood.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Three loud booms echo through the trees. The monkeys scatter. Kanno bursts into a grin, giggling. Then he runs to every house nearby, making sure his neighbors know that he just saved their gardens from almost certain devastation.

"They won't be back tomorrow!" Kanno calls, waving the spent firework, giddy with excitement. "I won today!"

But even as he says that he loads a fresh firework and tucks it into his coat. The monkeys will be back, and the battle will continue.


Kat Lonsdorf (@lilkat_bigworld) is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. Follow the fellowship on Instagram (@thejohnaproject) and Twitter (@thejohnaproject).

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many towns and neighborhoods in Japan were left empty for years following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Vines grew through pavement. Wild boar rampaged deserted houses. Nature reclaimed the space. Slowly, though, as evacuation orders are lifted, humans have started to return, and they have been figuring out how to coexist with the more feral inhabitants - or not. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports from one rural area where monkeys have taken over and one man has taken it upon himself to fight back.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Seventy-nine-year-old Shuichi Kanno has just received some new battle supplies, a big cardboard box filled with...

SHUICHI KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: ...Animal-exterminating fireworks. It sounds worse than it is, I promise. Shuichi takes out pack after pack, stacking them on the table in front of him.

S KANNO: (Through interpreter) The monkeys - they'll eat anything - anything - all of my vegetables. I have to fight them or they'll take it all.

LONSDORF: Shuichi has been waging a battle for the last year against the macaque monkeys in his village. These fireworks are his main weapon. To be very clear, Shuichi does not hurt the monkeys. He says he would never. In fact, that is expressly forbidden. These fireworks only make a loud noise to scare them away for a while. They inevitably come back about 10 days later, like clockwork, he says.

S KANNO: (Through interpreter) The monkeys - they never used to come here. But since the nuclear disaster, the border between monkeys and humans has blurred.

LONSDORF: The 2011 explosions at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant sent huge plumes of radioactive material toward this mountain area. Everyone evacuated. Humans were gone for years.

S KANNO: (Through interpreter) The houses were empty, but the gardens were still growing plums, pears, chestnuts, persimmons. It was a wonderland for monkeys, an all-you-can-eat buffet. They remembered that.

LONSDORF: When people finally started returning, the monkeys had become comfortable - really comfortable. And on top of that, only a few people returned, most of them elderly. The humans and their produce didn't stand a chance.

Shuichi's wife, Yuriko, pops into the living room carrying a tray of tea. She chuckles at the fireworks.

YURIKO KANNO: (Through interpreter) I've been so worried that maybe someday this village is going to become the monkey planet like that movie.

LONSDORF: She means "Planet Of The Apes."

Y KANNO: (Through interpreter) I've seen it. It could happen (laughter).

LONSDORF: This is a theme here in Fukushima not just with monkeys, but with lots of animals. Wild boar wreak havoc at night. Packs of wild dogs run through the streets. As people have returned, the local governments have started subsidizing tools for communities to help them cope, like these fireworks. Shuichi is in charge of handing them out to neighbors so they can join the fight. He loads the fireworks in the trunk of his car and puts on a kind of battle hymn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LONSDORF: Driving through the forest roads, humming along...

S KANNO: (Humming).

LONSDORF: ...Shuichi points out the landscape as he drives. It's a beautiful area. He says his entire relationship with nature changed after the nuclear disaster. The dense forests here still have high levels of radiation.

S KANNO: (Through interpreter) I loved hiking. I loved foraging for wild vegetables, finding wild mushrooms. But now it's so dangerous. We can't have a relationship with nature anymore. It's gone.

LONSDORF: He pulls up to a neighbor's house...

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: ...Humming to himself as he gets the fireworks out of the trunk.

S KANNO: (Humming).

LONSDORF: And then he calls for 77-year-old Hachiro Endo.

S KANNO: Konichiwa (ph), Hachiro-san (ph).

LONSDORF: Hachiro comes outside, delighted by the delivery. He's used up his whole stockpile recently.

HACHIRO ENDO: (Through interpreter) I'm alert all the time. The monkeys have taken over my life.

LONSDORF: He laughs at the absurdity of it all. He has a huge, beautiful garden, and strings of dried persimmons hang in his garage. The monkeys recently snuck in and ate them all, he says.

ENDO: (Through interpreter) People come from out of town and they think they're so cute and get their cameras out. But now when I see them, I get really annoyed.

LONSDORF: Hachiro grew up here, and his father and grandfather were from here.

ENDO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: He says he grew up with an old village folklore that warns if you hurt a monkey, you'll be cursed.

ENDO: (Through interpreter) So we have to be good friends. It's a very complicated relationship.

(LAUGHTER)

LONSDORF: Both men are barely containing their giggles, though. It's pretty clear they kind of love the monkeys and the thrill of this whole thing.

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: A few days later, we meet up with Shuichi again. He's excited. He's seen a troop of monkeys running through the neighborhood eating vegetables. He's got on a bright-orange coat, a baseball cap and big rubber boots.

S KANNO: (Laughter).

LONSDORF: He hops into his pickup truck, clutching a firework in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. He drives slowly, leaning forward to scan the hills as he goes. And then suddenly...

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: ...Monkeys scampering across the road. Shuichi pulls over and gets out of the truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: "There they are," he says, pointing behind a shed. Dozens of monkeys are jumping toward the forest, scrambling up trees and crawling up the hillside. Shuichi holds up the firework, pointing it toward the sky. He lights the fuse...

(SOUNDBITE OF FUSE BURNING)

LONSDORF: ...And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)

LONSDORF: ...The monkeys scatter. Shuichi bursts into a giant grin, giggling.

S KANNO: (Laughter).

LONSDORF: Then he runs to every house nearby...

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: ...Making sure his neighbors know that he just saved their gardens from almost certain devastation.

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

S KANNO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: "They won't be back tomorrow," Shuichi laughs. He won today. But even as he says that, he loads another firework and tucks it into his coat. The monkeys will be back. The battle will continue, and Shuichi will be ready.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: What a great story. Kat Lonsdorf is NPR's Above the Fray Fellow. The fellowship supports reporting from undercovered parts of the world. You can see more of her reporting, with photos from NPR's Claire Harbage, at npr.org/fukushima. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.