In the context of a highly modernized and globalized 21st century Japan, cultures such as the Matagi still refuse to abandon traditional values. One of the latest stronghold in Japan that have been able to evolve and adapt to our days, gaining the acceptance and protection of the State itself.
The Matagi are traditional hunters who live in small villages and settlements in the highlands of northern Japan. Originally from the Tōhoku region, the majority now resides within the Shirakami National Park, between Aomori and Akita prefectures. During the year they survive thanks to agriculture and fishing, but when the winter weather prevents them from carrying out these activities, they go to harvest and hunt in the mountain forests.
The Matagi tradition is believed to have established itself as a distinct culture in the mid-sixteenth century, when the development of a thriving market economy in Japan made it possible to make a living by selling meat, skins and other products derived from hunting. Its main prey for generations has been the Japanese black bear (Ursus thibetanus japonicus). In the beginning they used bow and arrow or spears. In the Edo period they introduced the matchlock rifles, and later in the Meiji era they used the Murata, the first Japanese production military rifle. Nowadays they use modern rifles and they no longer need to hunt in groups, yet still retain the mysticism and traditions of their ancestors.
When a hunter enters the mountain, he abandons the profane Japanese of the villages and employs a special argot, more appropriate for what they consider the sacred realm of the mountains. It also fulfills another function, being able to communicate with each other and not reveal their intentions to the animals they pursue. That is why they refer to a bear using the word "itazu", although in Japanese it is said "kuma". They believe that it is necessary to always pray to the mountain deity before starting a hunt, thus asking for his permission and approval to kill creatures under his tutelage.
They also interpret stormy weather as a sign that the mountain god is upset. It is indeed a culture with great respect for nature, which emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with it. However, like many other cultures dating back to medieval times, it has a strong patriarchal sexism. A woman is never allowed to enter the mountains and, furthermore, a Matagi hunter could not sleep with his wife in the days preceding the hunt as this would leave him “tainted” and not fit to enter the sacred realm.
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