by Robert J. Collins 

One of the funniest jokes in the world, if not the entire universe (or at least the universe we can see at night from our bedroom window), is the one about the lady who goes into a soba shop with a bear on a string.

“Welcome” says the Master of the Shop, the Most Respected Purveyor of Soba within 30 meters. “Where’d you get that pig?”

“Pig? Your Mastership is wrong. That’s a bear.”

“I know that,” said the Most Respected Purveyor, “I was speaking to the bear.”

Whoa! That’s a good one alright. (You see, she thought….) I’ll give you a few moments to settle down.

Now then, no matter how hilarious bear stories are (One Karuizawa hiker to the other as they encounter a bear – “I don’t have to outrun him, I just have to outrun you”), bear humor is becoming strained in Japan. And for good reason.

A farmer in Akita or some such place was out in his field tending to things. He hears his wife approaching from the rear. He even catches a glimpse of her moving among the fruit trees or whatever. He keeps tending to things. She will probably start nagging about something. He takes a deep breath. Suddenly, and without any warning save a passionate sigh, a rampaging bear, definitely not his wife, attacks his face.

Fortunately the farmer was not seriously injured. (Unfortunately his wife was not described or pictured in the news. I would have liked to see her. One thing I pride myself on is never mistaking a bear for my wife. I mean, smell alone…)

“We used to tolerate bears,” the farmer said. “Lived with them in nature.” He had a bandage on his face the size of a beehive. His injuries will take four weeks to heal. “But we don’t tolerate them anymore.”

As this was going on, authorities were running around the entire country chasing bears, and not just in isolated areas like Shinjuku. Bears were caught crashing through walls, climbing balconies, terrorizing school children, jumping on automobiles, holding up convenience stores and doing everything else but going to rave parties.

It seems that bears, together with our cousins the monkeys, have run out of traditional food from traditional areas. Nuts, berries and ham sandwiches are not plentiful this year and can no longer be scooped up and put aside for the long winter. These are difficult times for the little creatures and in a way I feel bad about it.

The fact remains, however, that wild animals capable of serious harm are attacking and injuring people. Not everyone is capable of outrunning the animals or fellow hikers, and things will only get worse.

I like furry, warm animals as much as anyone — my best friend as a kid was a teddy bear (until I started college) — but unless we figure out how to change the patterns of nature so that nuts, berries and ham sandwiches continually abound, we have to face the fact that the kindest thing we can do for our fellow creatures is, to put it politely, snuff the excess.

Meanwhile, think of what the old lady (female senior citizen) in the retirement home had to say to her weekend visitors who always brought with them little scraps of news from the neighborhood to keep her amused. (“Watanabe-san got new teeth, and Midori-san’s granddaughter started school.”)

“Well listen to this,” said the old lady to whom this actually happened in Chiba. “Right here is where I finally got the bear to stop chewing the futon. And over there, exactly where you’re sitting, is where he peed.”