The Study of Human-Animal Interactions The CAIRC Scholarship Program Summary of the Past Researches
Summary of the Past Scholarship Research
From "Letter from CAIRC" October 2002
Research Theme: "A Research on Relation Between Japanese People and Japanese Native Horses, Particularly Focus on Those in Ryukyu Islands"
By Schu Kawashima
Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences
The University of Tokyo
The indigenous horses that once had come to be so intimately linked to daily life in Japan are now on the verge of extinction. In his research at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Kawashima studied the indigenous Japanese horses that once lived throughout the Ryukyu Islands, including two areas where they still exist and the island of Ishigaki, from which they have already disappeared.

Kawashima is currently studying indigenous Japanese horses that are being bred in other areas of the country, examining the genetic characteristics of horses in various regions in order to discover their roots. This presentation represents the first step toward this larger research goal. For the current study, he visited the islands of Miyako, Yonaguni and Ishigaki in Okinawa prefecture, and conducted a hearing survey of local people currently and previously engaged in horse breeding and animal husbandry.

“In general, a household on Yonaguni raised a single uncastrated male horse of the Yonaguni variety (115 - 120 cm in height). The horses were put to work in agriculture and in areas such as delivering official documents, tax collection and postal services. Until mid-1965, horse races were held in the season following the agricultural festivals and rice harvest. They are no longer used to supply physical labor. But a number of facilities have been built in the central area of the island for horseback riding, providing travelers with an opportunity for contact with Yonaguni horses.

“During the period of the Ryukyu Dynasty, breeding of horses of the Miyako variety was begun on Miyako Island in order to provide transportation animals for the samurai warriors of the Edo Shogunate. World War II dealt a near-devastating blow to the Miyako variety, but during the decade through 1965, 12,000 horses were bred. It was the greatest number produced either before or after the war, and made the island one of the foremost horse breeding area in Okinawa prefecture. Since then, however, changes in society have led to another drastic decrease in numbers. And now the only ones remaining are bred by volunteers trying to prevent extinction, and for the purposes of education at agricultural schools. In addition, challenges are under way that involve cross-fertilization and training of horses descended from the now extinct Ishigaki horse in an attempt to revive that variety.”

The relationship between horses and the Japanese people has changed greatly in the Meiji period, and since World War II. Kawashima describes of a number of crucial elements that will be necessary in order for a wide variety of horses to continue to live in Japan.

“The first is the necessity to revive and maintain the sense of an intimate connection to horses that Japanese people felt throughout the period up to World War II. The second is the need to go beyond mere conservation and preservation. By actively seeking out useful roles for these animals in areas such as education, therapy and festivals, many Japanese can be made to understand the necessity of their existence.

“Studies also show that just people tend to feel comforted and at ease just by seeing horses. And the relatively small horses that are dominant in this region are said to be well suited to activities in which people can see, touch and help care for them. Producing horses that are easy to handle will aid in their conservation by enabling a greater number of people to understand and become familiar with them.” In conclusion, Kawashima wishes that conducting this research provide people with an opportunity to rediscover what wonderful animals indigenous Japanese horses are. He also noted that he looks forward to the emergence of a society more familiar with horses due to their contact with indigenous horses.