Nestled in the heart of the Kansai region of Japan, Nara City exudes a subdued atmosphere unique from its neighboring Osaka and Kyoto. If there is a particular symbol of Nara recognized nationwide, it is either the Buddha of Todai-ji (東大寺) or the deer of Nara Park. Over the long weekend in mid-October, the annual deer antler-cutting ceremony [ja], known as Shika no Tsunokiri (鹿の角きり) took place. In the quiet, tranquil setting of Nara Park, the deer pen and elaborate arena constructed for this event, coupled with the occasionally humorous color commentator and enthusiastic crowds made this ceremony among the liveliest and most interesting one can see in Nara.
Unmissable by any visitor, the deer in the park are beloved by many, considered a nuisance by some, but are assuredly among the most symbolic images of Nara and Nara Park. The deer can often be found walking (typically calmly) on the streets, sidewalks, and public parks, and are a visible part of the daily commute for the countless people living nearby. It is interesting then, to consider the practical side of dealing with a small army of animals congregating in a relatively small area. There are benefits, such as tourist adoration and the natural merchandising, but there are dangers and public concerns to be addressed – this is where the antler-cutting ceremony comes in.
Originally a task carried out by the authorities at Kōfuku-ji temple, the ceremony is now an annual event carried out by Kasuga Shrine, and organized by the Foundation for the Protection of Deer in Nara Park. Some introductory information from the event organizer's website:
Making the fall season of Japan's ancient capital, Nara, all the more lively, the thrilling “Shika no tsunokiri” is a traditional event passed down and carried on for more than 330 years, since its inception in the year 1671, in the early Edo Period (Kanbun Era). In the mating season, bucks (male deer) are known to run wild, and inflict potentially lethal harm upon the townspeople and each other. It has been said that in order to prevent such occurrences, Kōfuku-ji temple, under the orders of the Nara magistrate's office, first initiated the antler-cutting ceremony.
Nara's economic newspaper wrote up a descriptive article on the event, and included some great specifics on what physical considerations are made during the ceremony.
The antlers can become quite large, at roughly 50cm long weighing around 1.5kg. On a single day, around 15 deer have their antlers cut, and the target deer for cutting are those over the age of 4 with antlers branching off into three ‘horns’. Depending on their physical condition, blood may be drawn, however apparently a fully grown antler no longer has any nerve sensitivity, and thus there is no pain.
The article goes on to summarize the state of, and present issues facing the deer of Nara.
As of July 2009, there are 196 adult males, 705 adult females, and 151 fawns adding up to 1,052 total deer living in Nara park. Their numbers have been decreasing for three years straight however, this year seeing a drop of 76 deer compared with last year. Over the past year, 357 deer have died, with 179 deaths being attributed to some form of illness, the highest number yet recorded. Issues have been raised with litter in the park, as well as the feeding of inappropriate (and potentially poisonous) food to the deer as leading causes of the increasing disease-fueled death rate. As well, it is said that when people harass the deer and chase them around, it can be mentally stressful to the animals and negatively impact their life span.
Kyoto University professor Noburo Ogata wrote up a brief piece on the history of Nara's deer populace, addressing one of the fundamental reasons the animals have continued to live safely in the region for so long.
The history of the shrine compiled in medieval times indicates that Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the first of the shrine’s four deities was invited from Kashima (Ibaraki prefecture) and arrived riding a white deer in 768. Accordingly, the shrine and Kôfuku-ji, an associated Buddhist Monastery which exercised power over the Yamato Province, began to insist on the divinity of the deer inhabiting the Kasuga Hills.
The event was extremely crowded in the afternoon on the Sunday, and likely throughout most of the event's duration. Subsequently, quite a large number of individuals blogged about it.
Morinomiya-san covered some background details of the event, plus put forward his opinions and perspective as a photographer of the event. He took some great photos, visible in his blog post.
The deer naturally become quite agitated, and in their frantic attempts to escape, present a significant danger.
Only in seeing the event first hand can you really appreciate the impressive force required to restrain the deer.
I hope you'll forgive the blurry pictures, following the deer running wildly in the small arena to get a photo made for a challenge.
I feel that while for the deer, the antler cutting is an unfortunate process, it was surely established as the only viable means of allowing humans and deer to live safely together.
Peperre also went, and provided some interesting photos along with his description of the event.
While the deer is running away, they toss a rope towards the horns…
(Once caught) the Shinto priest has the deer drink purified water, and uses a saw to cut off the antlers.
It was a bit tough to see from afar, but watching the forceful hunters (seko) working so hard to chase the escaping deer was extremely entertaining!
In considering the repurcussions of sawing off the chief visual object of masulinity the male deers have, one does feel concerned about their prospects of future mating (as virtually every blog and article linked above addresses at some point), but in looking at the male/female ratio of deer in the park… with more than 3 females for every male, I don't think it's an irreconcilable problem!