The Sankebetsu Bear Attack

Growing up I loved the movie “Jaws”. For anyone out there who somehow hasn’t seen it, it is a fictionalized story of a shark that terrorizes a New England town. Few people are aware however that “Jaws” was actually inspired by a real life man-eating shark that terrorized the Jersey Shore long before Snooki ever got there.  In July of 1916 people started being attacked in the waters along New Jersey. The first had the flesh ripped from his leg and bled to death on the floor of his hotel. Five days later and 45 miles north, a second man was mutilated in a shark attack, his abdomen torn from his body. Six days after that an 11 year old boy was pulled beneath the water 30 miles north. When a man entered to water to search for him, he too was bitten severely and bled to death. The 11 year old boy’s body was recovered later. A half hour later and only a half mile away, a 14 year old boy was attacked, but he was saved and survived. The terror only ended after a Great White Shark was caught and killed in New York. The nearly 8 foot long shark capsized the man’s boat, and he fought it off and ultimately killed it with a broken oar in what must have been a scene eerily similar to Quint’s “Jaws” showdown. When opened up approximately 15 pounds of human remains were found in the animal’s stomach, and no further attacks were reported.

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What caused the rogue shark to begin targeting humans is a mystery. Much like it’s “Jaws” counterpart, the shark seemed to be unnaturally preoccupied with killing humans, arguably even supernaturally.

It’s a rare occurrence for a wild animal to become such a killer. Most often when a human is killed by an animal it is in self defense, or it is a standalone incident. Only a few times in history have there been animals that seem to specifically hunt humans. A current example in Gustave, the 18 foot African Crocodile that has terrorized villagers in Burundi for years. Another case is the story of the Tsavo Man-Eating Lions, popularized by the film “The Ghost and the Darkness”.

But few people have heard the unsettling tale of the Sankebetsu Bear Attack of Japan.

Less than one year before a shark terrorized America, a bear brought down a reign of terror on northern Japan. It was December of 1915, and bear sightings among the rural villages were common at the time. The Ussuri Brown Bear, cousin of the Grizzly, typically left humans alone, only occasionally breaking into village food stores.

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But something was different about this particular bear.

On the ninth, a bear attacked the Ōta farm. Abe Mayu, the farmer’s wife, was caring for a friend’s child at the time. The bear broke into the farmhouse and attacked the baby, as Mayu tried to fight it off with logs of firewood. The bear turned it’s attention on the woman, grabbing her in its jaws and dragging her away into the forest. When neighbors arrived they found the farmhouse in shambles, with puddles of blood on the floor.

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A search party mobilized to find and kill the bear, and recover any of Mayu’s remains. They soon found the massive animal, and though they shot it the bear managed to escape. Mayu’s remains with found cached in the snow nearby; all that remained was her head and legs.

Nearby, news of the attack reached the Miyouke family. There, the women and children of the Miyouke and Saito families had gathered, while the men hunted for the bear. Though the bear returned to the Ōta home in search of more prey, it was chased off by several of the hunting party. The bear turned it’s sights on the now unprotected Miyouke farm.

Yayo Miyouke was cooking dinner with her baby on her back when the large black bear broke through the farmhouse window. In the panic, the cooking pot overturned onto the fire, plunging the house into darkness. Yayo was tripped by one of her children clinging to her legs, and as she lay there the bear attacked the baby on her back. The bear then attacked three more of the children as they tried to hide, before turning on pregnant Take Saito. She begged the bear to spare her unborn child before it mauled her. Though her fetus was recovered alive from her body, it perished a short time later.

Yayo meanwhile had escaped into the night and ran to find help. The men made it back to the village and hurried to the home, where the bear was still on a rampage inside. Though they tried to corner and shoot it, once again the bear managed to escape.

Several men from the village found expert bear hunter Yamamoto Heikichi, who told them the bear’s name was “Kesagake” and that it had killed at least three other women in it’s life. Yamamoto refused to help them however, having sold his gun for alcohol.

News of the bear attacks reached the government, who sent reinforcements in to hunt down the rogue animal. Though the bear raided several more farms stealing winter stockpiles, it could not be tracked or hunted.  On the night of December 13th a sniper on guard at the village saw a shadow moving cautiously at the edge of the forest. He thought it was a person and called to it, but received no response. Realizing it was Kesagake he fired, and the bear bolted into the woods.

Having once again successfully shot the bear without killing it, the party followed the animals bloody tracks into the woods the following morning. This time they were accompanied by no-longer-retired-Yamamoto, who found the bear and finally shot it to death, once in the heart, once in the head. The bear was nearly 9 feet tall and 750 pounds, and the remains of its victims were found in its stomach.

It will never be clear why Kesagake decided to hunt humans, or why he did so with such brutality, rarely eating his victims only mauling them. Some believe the bear may have had a brain injury or defect; some wonder if it was rabid, others speculate that human encroachment woke the bear from hibernation and sent it on its rampage.

So was this just a case of a sick or starving bear trying to survive? Or was it a real life animal serial killer, hunting the most dangerous game?

Whatever the reason, Kesagake killed seven people that winter, mostly children. At the site of the attacks now sits a shrine, as well as a reconstruction of the Ōta house, and a statue overlooking it all.

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talk about awkward family photos

Much like the story of the Jersey Shark, Kesagake also has his own movie; Rimeinzu Utsukushiki Yūshatachi (“Yellow Fangs” in english) tells a fictionalized account of the bear attacks. And also similarly to the legacy of “Jaws” the attack left a lasting impression on Japan, and their opinions of bears.

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