Japan is considered one of the safest countries globally and Tokyo one of the safest cities. But if you are brave enough to traverse into the wilds of the country, who knows what terrifying creatures you will meet—and I’m not talking about the ghosts and ghouls of legends.
Japan’s various climates bring beasts from the wintery north, slithering serpents hiding in the Okinawan shade and summer bugs that haunt our dreams like the mukade (giant centipede). We will look at the deadly, the destructive and the animals that could kill you.
Japan’s largest wild mammal comes in two colors: the Ussuri (or Ezo) brown bear and the Asian black bear. Native to Hokkaido, the Ussuri brown bear is considered the most ferocious of the pair. This bear (kuma in Japanese) species was responsible for the deadliest bear attack in Japanese history, the 1915 Sankebetsu brown bear incident, where seven people were killed.
The Asian black bear tends to keep to the mountainous areas of Honshu and—less commonly—Shikoku. Shier (and smaller) than their brown brothers, attacks and sightings are less likely. But as food becomes scarcer, encounters between villagers and bears rise, especially in the months before hibernation.
- Be loud. Wear a bear bell and make your presence known
- If spotted, back away slowly
- If attacked, fall to the ground and protect your head and neck
- Leave garbage and food around
- Go off-trail
- If faced with a bear, do not run
2. Wild boars
The inoshishi (Japanese wild boar) may seem harmless at first glance with its old man whiskers and unassuming stature. But folklore (and first-hand accounts) tell the tale of cunning porcine demons who are downright brutal. Local hunters revere their bravery, strength and speed. Still, they know not to catch them unawares lest they want to be fatally injured or incite a rampage.
Found in all hilly areas in Japan—minus Hokkaido—you could encounter them on a hike. Still, a sudden boar-boom means you may also see them scavenging closer to towns.
- Move slowly
- Get high (Their little legs aren’t made for climbing)
- Approach or provoke them (Don’t expect Hakuna Matata)
- Run (They are faster than you)
The fugu, or pufferfish, won’t kill you with their prickly spikes alone. They’re technically only deadly when eaten. Fugu is often found in sushi restaurants and is considered a delicacy in some regions of Japan, such as Fukui’s Obama.
With their bodies containing the paralyzing toxin tetrodotoxin, a trained chef with years of experience must precisely cut the fish to avoid the diner’s demise. Unfortunately, the pass rate to become a fugu chef is around 50%, so I’m not too fond of those odds.
If sliced incorrectly and eaten, the body becomes paralyzed, leading to asphyxiation and eventual death. Not exactly what I ordered. With no current antidote, treatment involves a good stint in the hospital after having the stomach pumped. This is the reality for dozens of people a year with an unlucky one or two succumbing to the poison.
- Go to a certified restaurant
- Eat fugu that is reared poison-free
- Take your chances on fugu with unknown sources
4. Viper box jellyfish
Anyone daring to enter the Japanese sea during jellyfish season might be in for a nasty surprise between July and September. The habu-kurage (viper box jellyfish) is a force to be reckoned with living in the waters of Okinawa.
Their tentacles are full of harpoon-like stingers, so if these dangly weapons so much as graze your paddling legs, you’ll be in for a world of pain. So much so that some attacks have led to drownings, shock and cardiac arrest. The dramatically titled Portuguese man-of-war organism (not technically a jellyfish) can also pack a punch.
- Swim at a beach with safety nets
- Contact a lifeguard or call 118
- Apply vinegar to the wound (for habu-kurage only)
- Wear long sleeves or a rash guard
- Rub the infected area
There are many hebi, or snakes, in Japan that you should avoid. Still, the habu (yellow-spotted pit viper), yamakagashi (tiger keel back) and mamushi (pit viper) variety are the main ones you don’t want slithering into your bed at night. The Okinawanan habu’s venom is hemotoxic, meaning that it seeps into the victim’s bloodstream, destroying cells and tissue along its path.
As you can imagine, this isn’t pleasant for the 50 people a year who are bitten. While there is an antidote, the bite can still cause permanent damage. Better lock those doors because It won’t mind entering your home searching for prey.
Finding one of these in your home will have you heading for the hills (and the boars).
The equally venomous yamakagashi is more docile than its relatives. Found in most warm places in Japan, it chooses to flee rather than stand and fight. Thus, in 14 years, only nine people have been bitten—still, best not to go poking at it with a stick. The mamushi is the most prevalent and deadly of the three. Thousands are bitten each year with around a 1% fatality rate. The kicker is they are found all over Japan (minus the Ryukyu Islands).
Also worthy of note is that thousands of snakes a year are torturously submerged, often alive, in awamori liquor to make habushu. Sometimes, they fight back.
- Avoid tall grass and known hotspots
- Go immediately to a hospital if bitten
- Try to suck out the venom (it’s only cool in movies)
- Drink habushu (snake wine)
6. Giant ‘murder’ hornets
Look—they’re called murder hornets for a reason. In Japan, they’re called suzumebachi, or “sparrow insect,” and they’re responsible for 30 to 50 deaths per year. While “harmless” in small doses, their 6 millimeter-long poisonous stinger causes excruciating pain and even death if the victim is stung repeatedly: a chance increased if you encounter a swarm.
If you see their sparrow-like wingspan gliding over a low mountain or through a forest while hiking, it’s best to steer clear.
- Use protective screens in your home
- If you find a nest, call the authorities
- Stay calm and move away slowly
- If stung, clean the wound immediately
- Make loud noises
7. Redback spiders
These kumo (spiders) aren’t just on vacation from Australia. They have quickly become an invasive species in Japan, with reports of their blood-red backs spotted all over the country, including Tokyo.
Thankfully, there have been no reported fatalities in Japan. However, if bitten, you may experience intense sweating, headaches and muscular pain. There is an antivenom available. Still, finding one of these in your home will have you heading for the hills (and the boars).
- Apply ice to the bite
- Seek medical aid
- Touch them
These minuscule, seemingly inconsequential insects may be the most deadly on this list. Ticks ride on wild animals and household pets. They can infect humans with lethal viruses such as Lyme disease.
In Japanese, they are called sika-dani (deer ticks). Deer have been posing their own risk (and not just by kicking tourists in Nara) by transferring these virus-carrying ticks, especially the Asian longhorned tick, to humans. Some of these diseases are born in Japan, including the novel Yezo virus and Japanese spotted fever, which are fatal if left untreated.
Recently, evidence of an emerging life-threatening disease in Asia—severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or SFTS—has many healthcare workers apprehensive due to its high fatality rate (around 30%). In 2019, a record-breaking number of cases in Japan. Something to watch out for as the symptoms, including fever and diarrhea, are especially serious for Japan’s elderly population.
- Avoid tick-infested areas
- Wear long sleeves and pants
- Use repellent
- After a walk, check your pets and yourself for ticks
- Pry the tick off if it is firmly attached
Have you encountered one of these creatures and lived to tell the tale? Did we miss any? What deadly animals inhabit your country? Answer in the comment section below!