The Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident

The worst animal attack in Japanese history, what is now known as the Sankebetsu brown bear incident resulted in the deaths of seven people and injuries to three others. The culprit, a large brown bear, attacked a number of houses over the space of five days after waking up early from winter hibernation.

The Ussuri subspecies of brown bear is found on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. They had previously been found on the largest island, Honshu, but were driven to extinction around the end of the last glacial period, some 15,000 years ago. Outside of Japan, populations are found in China, Russia and the Korean peninsula. The Ussuri is a particularly large subspecies, with the largest individuals rivaling the size of the largest brown bear subspecies, the Kodiak.

An Ussuri Brown Bear. Image: Jiashiang/Flickr

Amongst the Japanese people, bears have a fearful reputation as maneaters. While the Sankebetsu incident played a significant role in cultivating this fear, it is not without grounds. During the first half of the 20th century, 141 people were killed in bear attacks on Hokkaido, with a further 300 injuries. Since 1962, 86 attacks resulting in 33 deaths have been recorded.

The first encounter with the large, male brown bear that was later responsible for the killings took place in mid-November 1915 when it approached a farm in Sankebetsu. While its appearance alarmed the Ikeda family living there and panicked their horse, the bear departed after eating only harvested corn. After the bear reappeared close to the farm on November 20th, the head of the family recruited his son and two matagi, specialist winter hunters experienced at killing bears, to fend off the creature. When the bear visited the farmstead again 10 days later, the four men fired on it, wounding the animal. 

A reproduction of the interior of the Ota home. Image: Babi Hijau

Despite following the animal’s trail towards Mount Onishika, noting numerous bloodstains that confirmed the animal had been injured by their bullets, a snowstorm forced them to turn back without finding it. The men concluded that the injury would instill a fear of humans in the bear and it would no longer approach settlements. 

They were proven gravely mistaken a little over a week later. Mid-morning on December 9th 1915, the bear entered the home of the Ōta family. Inside, a woman named Abe Mayu was babysitting an infant while her husband worked out on the farm. The bear attacked the pair, killing the baby with a bite to the head. Despite attempting to defend herself by throwing firewood, Mayu was overpowered and dragged off into the forest. Her husband returned home to find his wife missing and large puddles of blood across the floor.

The following morning, a search party some thirty strong was organised to hunt the bear down and retrieve Mayu’s body. A short distance from the Ōta farm the men sighted the animal, firing five rifle shots at it. Only one bullet found its target, forcing the bear to retreat. On searching the area the men found Mayu’s remains buried in snow at the base of a fir tree. She had been partially eaten, with only the head and legs remaining. 

Believing that the bear now had a taste for human flesh and would return, armed villagers congregated on the Ōta farm the following night. The bear did indeed return, sparking panic amongst the villagers. In the confusion, only one man shot at the bear, while a troop of 50 guards stationed a few hundred metres away arrived too late to intercept it. Nearby, a number of families had sought refuge at the house of the Miyouke Yasutaro, stationing guards outside. On hearing that the bear had been seen at the Ōta farm the guards set off to join the hunt, leaving just one of their number to protect the women and children left in the house.

A Japanese Ussuri Brown Bear. Image: Ozizo/Wikicommons

As Yasutaro’s wife Yayo led the women in preparing a late meal the bear smashed its way through a window and entered the house. In the chaos, a cooking pot on the hearth was overturned, dousing the flames. An oil lamp was also knocked over and extinguished, plunging the house into darkness as the bear rampaged inside. Yayo attempted to flee but was tripped by her young son, clutching at her legs in fear. While they were both initially attacked, the bear turned its attention to the single remaining guard, allowing Yayo to flee with her children as the man tried in vain to hide behind furniture, ultimately being badly mauled. The attack continued with two young boys being killed and a third injured. Lastly, it cornered a pregnant woman before killing and partially consuming her. Witnesses later reported her begging the animal not to touch her belly. 

The badly injured Yayo encountered the returning guards on the road, informing them that the bear had attacked the home in their absence. Returning to the house, sounds of the bear attacking the occupants continued inside the darkened home. An initial plan to burn the house down was abandoned in the hope that some of the children inside were still alive. Instead, the guards split into two groups, posting ten men with guns at the front door while the others circled around behind the house. There, they began shouting and banging to drive the bear to the front door. The plan worked, however the waiting gunmen had bunched together and blocked each other’s lines of sight, while some guns misfired. Again, the bear escaped.

After the initial attack, one villager had set off to visit Yamamoto Heikichi, an expert bear hunter. Yamamoto believed the bear was an individual known as Kesagake, thought to be responsible for mauling three women to death in previous incidents. However, he had since fallen on hard times and had pawned his guns to pay for alcohol and refused to help. The villager that had visited him later discovered that his pregnant wife was amongst those killed in the second attack.

The following day, a group of men gathered together to attempt, yet again, to kill the bear. The men holed up at the Miyouke home, but the bear was not seen that night. On December 12th, three days after the first fatal attack, police at the nearby town of Hoboro received word of the rampage and dispatched a team of six snipers to hunt down Kesagake. Amongst them was Yamamoto Heikichi. Again the bear failed to appear, resulting in the hunting team making the grim decision to use the corpse of a previous victim to lure it out. Despite protests from the villagers, particularly the Ōta and Miyouke families, the plan was put into place, however the bear once again evaded the guns.

With now upwards of 60 armed men involved in the hunt, patrols began to scour the nearby forest after the bear was found to have returned to the Ōta household and raided their winter stores. During the night of December 13th, guards posted on a bridge spotted movement, opening fire after the shadow failed to respond to a challenge. Again the bear escaped, however the following morning they found bloodstains along the opposite bank; the bear had once again been wounded. Taking two other hunters with him, Yamamoto set off to track down Kesagake.

The experienced bear hunter successfully tracked his quarry, finding it resting beneath a Japanese oak tree. He was able to close to within 20 yards of the bear before killing it with two accurate shots, one to the heart and the second to the head. Its rampage finally over, the bear was found to weigh almost 750 pounds and measured nearly 9 feet in height.

While most of the injured victims eventually recovered, the youngest son of the Miyouke family died as a result of his injuries three years later. The lone guard who had been mauled in the second attack returned to work, but fell into a river and drowned the following spring. Many villagers moved away from Sankbetsu. Seven years old at the time, Ōkawa Haruyoshi, the son of the village mayor, grew up to become a famous bear hunter. Swearing to kill ten bears for every one of the victims, he retired at the age of 62 with 102 kills to his name. His son successfully hunted and killed a 1,100lb bear in 1980.

Today, a shrine stands close to the location of the first attack, including a recreation of the Ōta house and a statue of Kesagake. 

Feature Image: A reproduction of ‘Kesagake’ that stands at the shrine to the incident. Image: Babi Hijau

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