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The Phantom Kangaroos of Japan

One area of cryptozoology, which I like to think of as more like a sort of subspecies of the field, is the investigation of what are called out of place animals. These are the various, often very large, species of animals that for whatever reason end up far from their original habitats and quite often in places where one would hardly expect to ever see them. This could be anything from the infamous alligators in New York sewers, to lions roaming America’s midwest, to black panthers prowling the countryside of the United Kingdom, and although they are known animals, these out of place beasts are sometimes every bit as enigmatic, mysterious, and indeed baffling as any other creature within the realm of cryptozoology. Certainly one of the stranger recurring stories of out of place animals are the numerous cases of phantom kangaroos showing up all over the place, in a wide variety of locations throughout the world, and Japan seems to be no exception.

Japan certainly has its fair share of natural beauty and unique or endemic fauna, but one thing that no one expects to find here is kangaroos in the wild. Yet this is exactly what bewildered residents have reported seeing in a rural community in Miyagi prefecture, which is located in northeastern Honshu, Japan. The last months of 2009 in particular saw a sudden surge of mysterious kangaroo sightings in the area around Ōsaki city, Miyagi prefecture that had authorities scratching their heads. Most of the sightings have occurred in and around the wilds of the picturesque rural Mayama district, which is known for its open fields, rolling green grasslands, and quaint pastures.

Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

The first report of the year occurred on October 24, 2009, when a resident of the Mayama district spotted a kangaroo in the woods. The animal was described by the eyewitness as being around 1 meter (3.3 feet) in height, with beige colored fur and shining eyes. Several other separate reports of kangaroos began to come in over the following months, mostly matching the same general size description and reported as having fur ranging in color from beige to a dark brown, with one account describing a black kangaroo. In one case a farmer was startled when a large kangaroo bounded over a pasture fence and bolted past him so close he could feel the wind against him as it went by. In another case, not one, but two big kangaroos were seen wandering about a grassy hill before darting off into some trees. The most recent sighting occurred towards the end of December of 2009, when an elderly woman spotted a large kangaroo bounding across an open field.

As amazing as these sightings are, the locale is not exactly new to kangaroos roaming its countryside, and in some ways the more recent sightings could be seen as a recurrence of an ongoing phenomenon in the area. According to Etsuro Ishikawa, the head of Mayama’s community center, there have been at least 20 reports of kangaroo sightings in the area over the seven year period spanning 2001 to 2008. This suggests that the animal (or animals) is a rather long term resident, and that it has managed to survive on its own in this new, foreign habitat. It is not clear what species the creature is, whether these sightings have been of the same kangaroo, or if is a solitary animal or a group of several.

Kango

Now obviously, kangaroos are not native to Japan. So how did one or more get to the wilds of this far away land? What is going on here? There have been no reports of missing kangaroos from zoos around the area, and the animals would certainly find it a tough swim from Australia to Japan. This leaves us with the possibility of escapees or released pets. The probability of this is actually very high since currently the sale and rearing of kangaroos and wallabies aren’t subject to any regulations under Japanese law and in fact, these animals can regularly be seen openly for sale at pet shops throughout the country. Considering this, It certainly seems possible for an escaped or released exotic pet to be behind the reports, and this sort of thing is not unprecedented in Japan, with the most notorious example being that of the invasive North American raccoon. In 1977, an enormously popular anime series called Araiguma Rasukaru (Rascal the Raccoon) spurred an enormous demand for the animals as pets, which resulted in around two thousand raccoons imported to Japan annually over the following years. Of course, although they certainly look cute, the fact that raccoons are very hard to train and they are actually quite aggressive wild animals caught many aspiring raccoon owners expecting a new adorable sidekick by surprise and the animals were dumped into the wilds of Japan on a regular basis, where in the face of a lack of any natural predators caused the unchecked population to skyrocket. Raccoons can now be found in the wild in almost every part of the country. Is this what might be happening with the alleged kangaroos being seen here?

Wherever it or they came from, there has been some speculation as to what species of kangaroo it could be, as well as the realistic odds that one could even survive for any appreciable length of time in Japan’s temperate climate, with its cold winters. Motoyasu Ida, a zoo official at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Japan, thinks that the culprit could be an Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus). Eastern Greys are relatives of the red kangaroo, and are found in Australia in the eastern half of Queensland, most of New South Wales and Victoria, and in parts of South Australia. They are a large species, with heights of up to 1.8 meters (6 feet), and weights of up to 60 kg (135lbs). This size fits in well with eyewitnesses estimates of the animal or animals as being anywhere from 1 meter (3.3 feet) to 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall, indicating that the kangaroo would be of a fairly large species. Eastern Greys also match the light grey to brown or beige coloration described in eyewitness reports of the mystery kangaroos. Ida also thinks that an Eastern Grey would make a good candidate due to the species’ sturdiness and adaptability, a must for surviving long term through the area’s cold winters. He said, “If the body (of the mystery kangaroo) is as big as an Eastern Grey kangaroo, it would be able to maintain its body temperature, even when it’s cold.” Ida also remarked that even in the dead of winter, the Eastern Greys at Ueno zoo are remarkably active and like to spend a lot of time out of their enclosures in the frigid cold.

Eastern grey kangaroo

Eastern Grey kangaroo

Indeed, Eastern Greys are incredibly adaptable, which is a large part of the reason why they are one of the most ubiquitous and commonly seen species of kangaroo in their native range. If there is enough food, it seems at least plausible that a kangaroo of this type, or even a group of them, could feasibly survive in this habitat. Japanese zoologist, Hideo Obara, also seems to concur that some kangaroos can be very good survivors. Obara explained, “It wouldn’t be that unusual for a kangaroo to be living in Miyagi prefecture. Kangaroos are good at adapting to different environments and some species live in areas where the temperature gets below freezing.” American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman doesn’t agree that a kangaroo is necessarily the culprit, and offered his own ideas to me on what could be behind the sightings. Coleman said,

Purely based on size alone, I have to disagree with the Japanese expert’s opinion. If this is a typical ‘out of place ‘roo report,’ the species described will not turn out to be a kangaroo, but a wallaby. As I note in my chapter on ‘mystery kangaroos’ or ‘phantom kangaroos’ in Mysterious America, there are wallabies adapted to colder climates that do well in northern locations. They are the ones that are most often, incorrectly, reported as kangaroos.

There have been no photos or video footage taken of the Japanese phantom kangaroos at this point, nor has there been any concrete physical evidence of their presence in the area, so speculation is likely to remain for now on whether kangaroos or wallabies are behind these eyewitness accounts. Despite the bizarre nature of this case, experts and authorities have mostly taken the sightings seriously, treated them as credible, and there have been several attempts by law enforcement officers to track down the mystery kangaroos to no avail as of yet. In an effort to quell some residents’ fears, Obara has publicly said that he doesn’t believe kangaroos on the loose in the area would pose any threat to the environment or to humans. Even so, residents of the region have been warned that anyone seeing one of the kangaroos is not to approach the animal and to contact the proper authorities immediately.

Kangaroo sake

Kangaroo sake

Whether these kangaroos or wallabies are dangerous or not, one enterprising local brand of Japanese liquor has decided to capitalize on all the publicity generated by the sightings. They have relabeled one of their lines of sake (Japanese rice wine) to feature a kangaroo prominently on front. The manufacturers hope to donate some of the proceeds towards the establishment of a kangaroo sanctuary in the area. Other various souvenirs pertaining to kangaroos have popped up in the area as well, and there are a lot of visitors who are drawn here in the hopes of sighting one of the elusive beasts.

Out of place animals certainly present their fair share of mysteries and enigmas. When looking at cases such as these mystery kangaroos in Japan, it is hard not to be reminded of how permeable natural habitats can sometimes be, and how life seems to find a way to cross borders and for creatures to end up where they should not be, often even thriving in the new conditions. Time will tell how and why kangaroos have found their way to the rural countryside of Japan, or indeed if they are even really there at all, but until we capture them they will certainly capture the imagination.