Tigers are one of the most famous big cats out there and are found all over, in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
From the iconic black stripes on the orange Indian tiger to the white pigmented Siberian tigers, Tigers span in their many different species across the continent of Asia. But are there any tigers in Japan?
There are no wild tigers in Japan, there are plenty of captive tigers in Japan across many zoos, but there are no wild tigers.
Larger species of a tiger such as the Siberian tiger will live in colder parts of northern Asia such as Russia and North China.
The smaller species of tiger, such as the Bengal tiger will live in hotter places across the Asian continent, India, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan, even Indonesia.
Tigers can also be found in a major variety of habitats across these countries, some tigers will be found in tropical forests, dry forests, cold northern forests and many tigers even enjoy the snow.
The fact that tigers are a species that can survive in almost any climate across the Asian continent, and have even been spotted in the wilds of Asian islands such as Indonesia begs the question, why don’t tigers live in Japan?
This question is even more prominent when we look at the significance of the tiger in Japanese art and spirituality. This article will explore why there aren’t any tigers in Japan and what the tiger means to Japanese culture.
Were There Ever Tigers In Japan?
Today, Japan is an island nation, split off from the continent by a sea, but that wasn’t always the case.
Japan was, of course, attached to the eastern coast of the continent, in what nowadays is modern-day Korea and China, however, Japan split from the continent a staggering 15 million years ago.
Could tigers have simply walked from the continent over to Japan before this split? Not tigers as we know them.
The oldest tiger fossils were found in South Asia around 2 million years ago, which is very shy of the 15 million years ago that Japan split from China and Korea.
But of course, as we know, tigers didn’t just spring into existence as fully formed tigers, they evolved from animals before them.
Some of these animals would have walked over to Japan and started evolving into tigers after the split.
The Evolution Of The Tiger
If you look back far enough, you’ll find that there was one extinct animal that was the oldest ancestor to all the carnivores found on earth today, that’s right, tigers, dogs, bears (see also ‘Are There Bears In Japan?‘), skunks, mongooses all have the same ancestor, the Miacid.
These animals had short legs, long claws, and were great ambush animals. They roamed across the earth 50 million years ago.
During this time much of Eurasia and North America were connected, but we can go further into the future of the tiger’s lineage. 30 million years further.
Pseudaelurus, a small animal resembling the common domesticated cat, or a lynx, is a species of cat that roamed across the Eurasian and North American continents 20 million years ago.
This species is said to be the direct ancestor of 40 cat species that live on earth today, including the Tiger.
Fossils of Pseudaelurus have been found in southern and eastern Asia, meaning that it is very likely that they existed in Japan, the Pseudaelurus would then split off into different species as it evolved, Smilodon roamed North America, Acinonyx, ancestors of the Cheetah, as well as many others would find their way to Africa, and Asia finally got the Tiger.
Asia getting the different species of tiger did also mean that the Pseudaelurus in split-off Japan would evolve too, to give us the only known species of tiger that roamed in Japan, the Wanhsien Tiger.
The Wanhsein Tiger was a species of tiger that roamed across Asia around 2 million years ago and has been found in China, Indonesia, Japan, and many other countries.
The Wanhsein Tiger was a massive predator in size and population, some believe it to be the largest cat of all time with its body weight reaching 500 kg.
These species disappeared around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, with most of the population being phased out by smaller, faster species of tiger. They would be the last tiger that was native to Japan.
If Tigers Aren’t Native To Japan, Then Why Are There So Many Tigers In Japanese Artwork?
There are many theories as to why Japanese artwork and culture depict tigers so much, but the universal answer to this question is simple: tigers are cool.
Japan would’ve had close relations to China and other Asian countries throughout its history of civilizations and heard stories of these giant striped cats, and then depicted them themselves.
In fact, we see many depictions of tigers throughout the history of Japanese artwork, and when you look at them, they don’t look like tigers at all.
This is because the artists would’ve likely never seen a tiger, and instead just painted what they think a tiger would look like.
For example, the Shogun Tokugawa commissioned artists from the Kano school to depict tigers and leopards across the walls of the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, which was Japan’s capital at the time.
These artists had two things to base their depictions on, the first being the stories that adventurers would tell them of the tigers that they had seen, and the second would be the tiger hide and fur that these adventurers brought back with them.
The adventurers were usually traders and soldiers, not artists or writers, so their descriptions would be along the lines of ‘big cats’, so the artists would draw big cats, with stripes.
Some would even draw them in positions they would expect cats to be in, such as curled up and even quite cute.
It is unknown why tigers didn’t evolve in Japan the same way that they evolved over the rest of Asia, or why the tiger lineage ended with the Wanhsien Tiger.
However, we do know that tigers were idolized in Japan as large house-cats and that tigers at one point did roam the Japanese islands millions of years ago.