Report on the joint talk “Visual story-telling of the Matagi hunters of Tōhoku”

With the increasing popularity of animal rights groups, some historical cultural practices have been challenged in the past few decades. Practices such as Spanish Bull Fighting and the Ainu Iyomante, or bear sacrifice ceremony, are being challenged by modern activist groups. These groups may wish to promote and defend animal rights, but they are also endangering traditional, cultural practices. Inspired by the preservation of controversial cultural practices, Javier Corso and Alex Rodal made it their mission to seek out disappearing traditions and learn about them. In 2017, Corso and Rodal traveled to Tohoku, Japan, to do just this. May’s Third Thursday lecture, “Visual Storytelling of Matagi Hunters of Tohoku,” explored the cultural exchange of these two Spanish artists during their stays with the Matagi of Japan.

Corso is a photographer from Spain and the founder and director of OAK Stories. He endeavors to explore the human condition from the local level, amplifying the voices of everyday people. Rodal is the chief researcher for OAK Stories and a criminologist by trade. Together, Corso and Rodal sought out the Matagi of Japan in order to learn about and preserve this fading culture. Joined by Dr. Scott Schnell of the University of Iowa, May’s Third Thursday lecture was a brilliant crash course in the history and contemporary situation of Matagi hunters.

The Matagi are a distinct cultural group from the Tohoku region of Japan. Living among the rugged mountains of northern Honshu (Japan’s main island), the Matagi have historically made a living off of the land. Hunting and gathering distinguished their culture from the rice farming Japanese to the south. Central to the Matagi culture is bear hunting. Seen as a gift from the Yama no Kami, the mountain goddess, the Japanese Black Bear is a vital part of Matagi survival. The Matagi have been hunting the Japanese Black Bear for centuries, using every part of the bear in their everyday lives.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan attempted to consolidate and homogenize all peoples living on the Japanese archipelago. The Matagi were no exception. This began the decline of the Matagi culture. By the end of the twentieth century, Matagi culture was being threatened by animal rights groups. Under the argument that hunting animals is an act of cruelty, animal activist groups have protested traditional hunting practices all over the world. Between Japanese assimilation policies and modern movements, the Matagi culture has faded to near extinction. Only small communities exist among the mountains of northern Honshu.

Photographer & Designer: Javier Corso
Text: Alex Rodal & Javier Corso
Ilustrations: Hiroko Ebihara
Year of publication: 2021
Pages: 82 pag.
Sizes: 21 x 16 cm
Paper: Biotop 200 gsm.

Corso and Rodal stepped in to one of these communities during their 2017 visit to Japan. With the goal of cultural exchange and preservation, Corso and Rodal lived with the Matagi for a short time. During this time, Corso and Rodal were able to connect to these reserved hunters through patience and understanding. They learned about the intricacies of Matagi hunting practices and spirituality. Through their hunting practices, the Matagi take on the role of preservers of nature. The Matagi may hunt vulnerable species, but they do so in such a way as to preserve the species. Ultimately, the Matagi work for the preservation of the environment.

At the end of their 2017 trip, Corso and Rodal learned of a female Matagi hunter named Hiroko. According to legend, the Yama no kami does not approve of female hunters. In an effort to please the mountain goddess, the Matagi have not taken in female hunters until the twenty-first century. It was this line of inquiry that Corso and Rodal pursued on their 2019 trip to Japan. Funded by National Geographic, this second trip enabled Corso and Rodal to explore the preservation of the Matagi culture into the twenty-first century. During this trip, Corso and Rodal met with Hiroko and her mentor, Shigemi, in order to explore how Hiroko became a hunter. Inspired by the need to preserve their culture, Hiroko learned the ways of traditional Matagi hunting and was able to earn her spot amongst the male hunters.

All of this research culminated in Corso’s and Rodal’s book Matagi. Formatted so that it can be read three different ways, this book explored Matagi culture through photographs, a Matagi legend, and a fictional text written from the perspective of Yama no Kami. This groundbreaking and innovative work is important for scholarship as well as the preservation of Matagi culture.

Amanda McGuire
PhD Candidate, University of East Anglia

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