restricted access Chapter 9. Animal Histories: Stranger in a Tokyo Canal
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175 9 Animal Histories Stranger in a Tokyo Canal Christine L. Marran On August 7, 2002, a bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus/Agohige azarashi) was spotted in the Tama River, far beyond its usual Arctic Ocean habitat. Over the course of a few days, onlookers grew into the hundreds. Newspaper reporters and television crews flooded the area to document not just the seal but the astounding human interest in the slippery stranger. One television crewmember commented that the seal was treated as a kind of messiah: “People would follow it along and scream whenever it raised its head above the surface. Everybody was walking along slowly, watching its every move. It was like some mass exodus. There must have been over 200 reporters from TV, radio and print media. God, they even had the company helicopters tracking the seal.”1 In calling this mass interest in the seal an “exodus,” the crewmember infers that the creature was akin to a religious prophet leading Tokyo dwellers to a promised land. Spectators followed like true believers as Tama swam from the Tama River (Tamagawa) to Yokohoma’s Tsurumi River (Tsurumigawa), presumably by returning to the bay and then entering the new river, then to the Katabira River (Katabiragawa) that flows through Yokohoma, the Ōoka River (Ōokagawa), then the Naka River (Nakagawa), and from there to the Ara River (Arakawa).2 The arctic seal that deftly navigated his way through the complex engineered water systems of the global commercial hubs of Tokyo and Yokohama for nearly two years was christened “Tamachan.” The frenzy to spot the seal certainly illustrates a contemporary habit of the urban human to turn animals into spectacle. John Berger’s point that animals have receded from our everyday lives only to return in commodity form rang true in the various cakes, towels, and other objects created in Tamachan’s likeness. Yet, the joy expressed every time the seal bobbed his wet head above the surface of the water implied a reluctance to reduce animal to mere spectacle and a fervent desire to make this animal the messenger and promise that Berger referred to as Christine L. Marran 176 a precapitalist urge—a time when animals were “subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed.”3 Tamachan came from over the horizon, a survivor under incredible odds, like a long-lost friend from an idealized natural past, an imagined wild world in which living can be more authentic. The appearance of an arctic seal in Tokyo Bay, utterly beyond its normal habitat , invites reflection on how it managed to swim such a distance in the first place. For animals, the impetus to migrate or move can be a genetic or active adaptation to changes in the environment. The movement from a birth habitat to another location is called “biological dispersal” and varies for each organism. There are differing motivations, ranges, and mechanisms for dispersal, but all animals (and plants) move or are moved in some way. In this sense, human and nonhuman animals are similarly mobile creatures. Humans move or emigrate in active adaptation for better economic or educational opportunities. They get displaced from their original home because of war, famine, or natural disaster and actively adapt to a new environment. These dispersals of human populations have led to the formation of multigenerational diasporic communities that influence urban design and the political concerns of a place. Biological dispersal of nonhuman animals takes place either as a matter of seasonal change or under particular constraints that may be unnatural, such as habitat fragmentation caused by human land use. Human technologies can also increase dispersal of some organisms. Mosquitoes can increase their range by riding ships into new habitats. Polar bears may move beyond their usual geographic range because of human-induced changes to their environment, such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap, rather than a self-directed choice to propagate across a wider terrain. Bearded seals, of which Tamachan was one, are migrating animals that move with the advance and retreat of the Arctic ice. This brings the seals farther south as the ice grows in the winter months and farther north when the ice retreats in warmer months. Bearded seal pups have been spotted as far south as Hokkaido, though no adults had ever been seen that far south. A different bearded seal was spotted out of its normal migration range in 2005, but the discovery of its dead body a year later in August 2006 shows that the dispersal caused...


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