Living in Japan
Partners in Crime: Life in a mountain village

Partners in Crime: Life in a mountain village

Added In: Living in Japan › Life in Japan

Jeffrey Townsend

Among the things that I have learnt from living in Japan is the problem of having too many principles. Each situation is different and one should change accordingly.

And, then, with time, one’s views change, or rather evolve. At school I remember emotionally debating the death penalty. I wanted to abolish it. But now it seems more humane to extinguish a life rather than to make someone spend interminable years in jail. Then there was vegetarianism – another fad. What could be more childishly simplistic and self-congratulatory! Better to confront the frightening beauty of life as a dance of creation and destruction, admit that we can only go on living by taking the lives of other living things.

Actually, I calculate that, here in Oyama, there is about a one in ten chance of my own life ending violently – either by one of the bears that I occasionally meet on the path home, or by the venomous suzumebachi hornets who this year too have made their nest under the roof of my house, or by the semi-feral dogs of my rent-a-hunt neighbor. The animals, which in the past almost killed one old woman, are kept in such dire conditions that no one could blame them for harboring homicidal instincts against the human race. Yes, life in Oyama can be unpredictable.

What, for example, does one do in a situation such as the following?

I’ve mentioned Kunio before. He’s a typical inhabitant of Oyama – a hard-working farmer who also sits in the village assembly, as well as editing a totally predictable village newssheet. Although we have diametrically opposed political views I like him. He also has a mature outlook on life. You can have an argument with him and he won’t hold a grudge against you like some of the others. Besides, he is a practical person with all the traditional self-sufficiency skills of these mountain people. And among these, I discovered, is a very primitive way of trapping deer.

The path up to my house passes across a small piece of his land. One day, walking home, I saw that there was the body of a deer there.

When I rang Kunio’s home, his wife Kiyoe answered.

“Did you know that there’s a dead deer on your land?” I asked.

“Where is that?”

“In the forest on the way up to my place.”

“Must have got caught in the trap.”

“A trap? I didn’t see any trap.”

“Yes, yes, Kunio-san put a wire trap there.”

Indeed. When I returned to look more closely I saw what she meant. The trap was nothing but a length of wire attached to the trunk of a tree at one end with a sliding loop at the other end. Having got its head caught, the deer had strangled itself trying to escape. Crude and effective.

I called her again.

“We ought to do something about that deer. It’s already starting to smell. Could you tell your husband?”

“Kunio-san’s in hospital.”


“He’s having his cataracts done.”

“Er, so what shall we do about it?”

“Couldn’t you do something?”

“Like what?”

“Anything. I leave it to you. Doka yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

I believe that the law says that you have to bury the remains of any animal that you kill. But how long would it take me to dig a hole big enough for this deer? At least half a day. And, anyway, it wasn’t me that killed it.

I rang a friend with one of those tiny 4-wheel-drive 650cc trucks.

“There’s a dead deer on Kunio’s land, and I’ve got to get rid of it somehow. As it’s too much bother to bury, I was figuring on dumping it. Can you give me a hand?”


No sooner said than done.

Like partners in crime we dragged the dead animal to the road and loaded it onto his truck. Then drove up the gorge. The place where we chose to slide the carcass off the truck seemed ideal - a rocky drop of a couple of hundred meters. Then we watched it cavorting out of control, falling like a rag doll. But it was only after it had slid over the cliff out of view… that I thought to myself, I hope that there’s no one fishing in the river below.

But it was too late to worry.

Occasionally skeletons are found in the forest – suicides, climbers who got lost… 

Later when I told Kiyoe that we had “disposed of it,” she thanked me. And a couple of weeks later, when she brought a piece of frozen venison and a bottle of sake, she referred to the incident as “our secret,” and laughed.

The guilty secrets of village life. Il silenzio. Indeed, in this freemason-like system of mutual help, it wouldn’t be convenient to have principles.