The Matagi, winter hunters

The Matagi, winter hunters
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In the middle of the 16th century, during the Sengoku or Warring States period, Japan was in the grip of a long and cruel civil war, with seemingly no end in sight. As during any armed conflict, food and raw materials inevitably became increasingly scarce. When the Portuguese brought the first harquebuses to Japan in 1543, not only did it change the course of the conflict but it also marked the start of a process of change in Japanese society.

It was against this background that hunting emerged as a vitally important means of subsistence and source of income. People in rural areas began heading into the mountains to hunt – especially during the winter months when farming would become impracticable – to meet the widespread demand for meat, skins and other by-products of this activity.

It is thought to be at this precise moment that the Matagi hunter emerged, in the mountainous Tōhoku region, in the north of Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. Although they hunt for almost any mammal, their most primordial and emblematic prey has, for centuries, been the Japanese black bear, a species currently classed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Given the ferocity of this animal and the perilous terrain it inhabits, the Matagi developed the all-important custom of hunting in groups and forming communities.

A photo of Matagi hunters taken at the beginning of the 20th century. It was not until shortly before World War II that they set down their spears and turned to the modern-day rifle as a hunting weapon.

Photo: Javier Corso

There are many legends, alongside the historical narrative, recounting the origins of the Matagi hunters from a more spiritual angle. The accounts vary slightly according to the region or community, but central to all of them is the veneration of the goddess of the mountains, a figure with many faces that has been present in Shintoism since time immemorial. According to the most widely told version, the goddess of Mount Nikko (in Tochigi Prefecture) was attacked by the deity of nearby Mount Akagi.

 

A group of hunters from the town of Oguni meet at dawn to plan their hunting strategy. They are led by Sato-san, nicknamed Captain, in whose cabin all the meetings are held.

Photo: Javier Corso

The goddess of Mount Nikko called for the help of a young hunter, Banzaburo, who was well known in the area for his outstanding archery skills. The deity of Mount Akagi had taken on the physical form of a giant centipede (or a snake in some versions of the story), and Banzaburo did away with it by shooting an arrow into its eye.

 

The Matagis worship the deity of the mountain. Before each hunt, they go to the small temples located in the woods to pray for protection and good fortune. The so-called portals are wooden structures separating the material from the spiritual world.

Photo: Javier Corso

The goddess rewarded him for his heroic deed by presenting him with a scroll granting him and his descendants the right to hunt in every mountain and forest of Japan, for all posterity.

 

The hunters now use rifles and modern-day clothing alongside the traditional tools of their community. The Matagi hunters of the 21st century are expert marksmen. Their distinctly coloured jackets enable them to pick each other out in the middle of the woods, and so avoid any accidents.

Photo: Javier Corso

In accordance with tradition, every leader of a Matagi group or community keeps a handwritten copy of this text, which is passed on from one generation to the next.

 

All the members of the hunting party have the same right to the animal’s meat and hide, regardless of who kills it. After shooting down their prey, the bear is dragged to a nearby plain where they skin and quarter it.

Photo: Javier Corso

The Matagi share many similarities, in spiritual terms, with Native Americans and other hunting tribes from various parts of the world. Their sacred reverence for the Japanese black bear and the mountains, as well as their immense knowledge of the environment, makes them key players in the conservation of local ecosystems. However contradictory it may seem, given that they are hunters, the Matagi argue that they play a vital role in maintaining a healthy balance between rural and urban life.

 

Captain Sato draws his Matagi knife, which he will use to quarter the animal. His family name is engraved on the blade.

Photo: Javier Corso

Matagi knives have evolved over the centuries. In the past, the handle used to be hollow, so that the knife could be fitted on to the end of a stick and used as a spear.

 

The head of a Japanese black bear after being cut off and skinned by the Matagi hunters.

Photo: Javier Corso

As part of the hunting ritual, the Matagi use their knives to cut up the dead animal in the woods and leave part of its entrails as an offering to the goddess of the mountains. They divide up the rest and carry it back to their settlement in rucksacks.