A plague of bloodsuckers

In Japan, reforestation, population decline and global warming have set off a land leech invasion.


Andrew Leonard
September 7, 2007 9:34PM (UTC)

It's a Hayao Miyazaki tale of environmental karma come to life. All over Japan, land leeches are emerging from the forest depths and besieging the citizenry.

Rob Elliott at Globalization and the Environment links to a short news snippet that attributes the encroachment of "yamabiru" bloodsuckers to Japanese reforestation and an ongoing decline in rural population numbers. A more detailed account in Japan's Asahi Shimbun throws global warming and hunting restrictions into the mix. We'll get to that in a second, but first, some tales of leech horror!

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From Reuters:

"Yamabiru will climb into people's socks and stay for about an hour, growing five to 10 times in size. Unlike with water leeches, people don't immediately realize they've been bitten. Only later when they see their blood soaked feet, do they realize what has happened," said Shigekazu Tani, [director of the Institute for Environmental Culture.]

From Asahi Shimbun:

Masako Takebayashi, 45, who moved from Kyoto to Otsu near the Hirasan mountainous area four years ago, says the leeches attach themselves to her even in the short period when she is hanging laundry in her garden.

"I can find them even near the entrance," Takebayashi said. "After rain falls, the number of yamabiru increases. In such times, I cannot go outside in sandals."

A mountain path along the nearby Adogawa river in the area was once the route of summer ascetic practices of monks in the Tendai Buddhist sect. Since about five years ago, however, the monks have been using a national bypass road to avoid the leeches.

Japan's remarkable reforestation record is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, Japan has reforested itself twice -- once dating back to the 1600s, and again after World War II. Likewise, Japan's demographic woes have been a hot topic for years. Japan's population of 127 million has peaked, and some estimates predict the total will drop to 95 million by 2050.

The most dramatic decline is occurring in rural Japan where the few young people who are actually being born are abandoning the countryside for the city. Which means, according to Asahi Shimbun, that not only are local forests thriving, but that the buffer areas between inhabited regions and the forest are being neglected. The ensuing profusion of weedy growth attracts animals whose numbers are increasing because of hunting restrictions and warm winters. The leeches latch on to the beasties and go for a ride, looking for more fresh meat.

What to make of this leech fest? Japan's success at reforestation offers an encouraging model to the rest of the world. Likewise, its imminent population decline suggests that humanity isn't necessarily doomed to perish under the weight of its own numbers. But even so, as a metaphor for the kind of unexpected, and unwelcome, manifestations likely to result from human mismanagement of the world's natural resources, a plague of bloodsucking leeches is not too shabby.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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