Tag: ‘Animal’

‘Ririkan’ fast-food mystery meat

20 Jan 2010

Whether it's genetically-modified mutant chickens or burgers made of eyeballs, tales of tainted fast food are favorite fodder for urban legends. In Japan, one juicy rumor claims that a popular gyūdon (beef on rice) restaurant chain secretly substitutes its beef with the meat of the ririkan, a type of giant rat from Australia.

Meat of ririkan, giant Australian rat --
Where's the beef?

Considering that the ririkan is a nonexistent animal and there are no high-profile rodent farming operations in Australia, it is safe to assume this claim is false -- but how did the rumor get started?

One contributing factor might be that fast-food gyūdon is so incredibly inexpensive in Japan. Low prices raise suspicions among consumers, leading some to conclude that cheap, low-grade alternatives are being substituted on the sly.

But why giant rats from Australia?

Perhaps it is simply a case of two separate facts becoming jumbled in the public's mind. First, Australia is seen as a cheap and plentiful source of meat. More than 70% of Japan's beef imports now come from Down Under, and the price is low. Second, the consumption of large rodents is not unprecedented in Japan. The nutria (Myocastor coypus) -- a large, rat-like rodent native to South America -- served as a source of food in Japan during the lean war years.

The short-lived love affair with the nutria began in 1939, when the Japanese military imported 150 of the animals from France. A large-scale breeding effort was launched with the aim of creating a cheap supply of meat and fur, and by 1944 the nation's nutria population had reached an estimated 40,000.

Wild nutria in Hyogo prefecture --
Wild nutria in Hyōgo prefecture. Itadakimasu!

After the war, however, the demand for nutria meat and fur evaporated. Nutria farms shut down, and many animals were released into the wild, where they thrived. Decades later, nutria populations have become established in various parts of Japan, with the largest numbers found in western Honshū (though sightings have been reported as far east as Chiba prefecture). Today, the nutria is regarded as an invasive species that spoils the landscape, interferes with rice and barley farming, and threatens the habitat of an endangered dragonfly (Libellula angelina). In Okayama prefecture, which boasts the largest nutria population, as many as 2,000 of the animals are captured and killed each year in organized culling operations.

Nutria meat is no longer eaten in Japan, but the fact that the animal looks like a giant rat and once appeared on dinner tables might add a touch of plausibility to rumors of rodent flesh being served up at fast-food gyūdon restaurants (though it does nothing to explain the origin of the word "ririkan").

Whatever the source of the ririkan rumors, scholars suggest that talk of tainted fast food is an inevitable by-product of our modern-day appetite for convenient (and less healthy) food over traditional home-cooked meals. In addition to demonstrating the importance of fast food in our consumer-driven culture, these stories also reveal a lingering mistrust of the large corporations that manufacture the stuff we eat.

[Note: This is the latest in a series of weekly posts on Japanese urban legends. Check back next week for another report.]

19th-century mermaid illustrations

11 Dec 2009

Reports of mermaid encounters were not uncommon in 19th-century Japan, and a number of illustrated documents from that period -- including a few by notable natural historians -- depict some fantastic specimens rarely seen in today's world.

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19th century mermaid drawing --
Mermaid illustration obtained by Blomhoff, late Edo period (artist unknown)

This mermaid illustration from the National Museum of Ethnology (Leiden, Netherlands) was obtained by Dutch trader Jan Cock Blomhoff, who served as director of the Dejima trading post in Nagasaki from 1817 to 1824. The drawing appears to show a different mermaid than Blomhoff's famous mummified specimen, which is also owned by the museum.

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Vintage mermaid sketch --

Noted natural historian Baien Mouri (1798-1851), a prolific illustrator known for his colorful depictions of plants and animals, included two sketches of a mermaid in his 1835 book Baien Gyofu ("Baien Book of Fish").

Vintage mermaid sketch --

No apparent effort was made to distinguish the mermaid drawings from the dozens of other illustrations of known sea animals that appear in the book.

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Vintage mermaid sketch --
[Enlarge]

This 1805 illustration (artist unknown) from the Waseda University Theater Museum shows a mermaid that was reportedly captured in Toyama Bay. According to the accompanying text, the creature measured 10.6 meters (35 ft) long.

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Keisuke Ito (1803–1901) -- a.k.a. the father of modern Japanese botany -- was a noted botanist, medical practitioner, and prolific natural history illustrator. He included several mermaid illustrations in his books, which consisted mostly of drawings of known animals.

Vintage mermaid sketch --

Ito's illustrated Kinka Juufu ("Book of Beasts") included a drawing of a mermaid swimming alongside an Australian sea lion (Zalophus lobatus).

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Vintage mermaid sketch --

Kinka Gyofu ("Book of Fish"), another illustrated work by Ito, included a depiction of scaly mermaids measuring about 67 centimeters (26 in) long.

Vintage mermaid sketch --

Ito also included this pair of mermaid illustrations in Kinka Gyofu with no apparent effort to distinguish them from the hundreds of other known fish and sea animals pictured in the book.

Vintage mermaid sketch --

It is unclear whether these illustrations were based on actual observations. Were they the product of an overactive imagination? Were they deliberate fabrications? Or did mermaids once inhabit the waters of Japan?

Video: Marine creature robots by kyg-lab

09 Dec 2009

Masamichi Hayashi, president of marine education establishment kyg-lab, has hand-crafted over 100 robotic marine creatures from recycled items such as plastic bottles, food containers, styrofoam, raincoats, and windshield wiper motors. A self-taught roboticist, Hayashi relies on his formal experience as a marine scientist to endow his machines with realistic movements, and he uses them in free shows to teach kids about the locomotion and behavior of sea creatures.

Here is a short video showing Hayashi's great white shark, manta ray, green turtle, hammerhead shark, Japanese giant salamander, porpoise, and killer whale.


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Hayashi's masterpiece is a 1.5 meter (5 ft) long coelacanth robot that weighs 48 kilograms (105 lbs) and cost 2 million yen ($22,000) to build. Here is some video of a diver giving it a snack.


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The coelacanth robot also makes a cameo in the next video, along with a tsuchinoko, a turtle, and a lake monster that carries a piece of waterborne trash to the curious onlookers on shore.


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[Link: kyg-lab]

Ig Nobel Prize: Panda poo power

02 Oct 2009

Researchers from Kitasato University in Tokyo have been awarded this year's Ig Nobel Biology Prize for demonstrating a method to reduce kitchen waste by more than 90% by using bacteria derived from Giant Panda excrement.

Giant Panda --

Professor Fumiaki Taguchi, who shares the prize with fellow researchers Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei (both from the Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences), began the project in 1998 after suspecting panda feces must contain bacteria capable of breaking down even the hardiest of foods because of the bear's vast consumption of bamboo.

Found in only a handful of areas in mainland China, the Giant Panda has a diet which is 99% bamboo. The rare and exotic animal, which can weigh as much 150 kilograms (330 lbs), feeds on 25 varieties of bamboo and consumes as much as 9 to 14 kilograms (20 to 30 lbs) per day.

After identifying some 270 different microorganisms in panda dung obtained from Tokyo's Ueno Zoo, the researchers isolated five types of bacteria that were the most efficient at breaking down proteins and fats and that could reproduce easily even under high heat.

In one experiment, the researchers mixed the bacteria with 70 to 100 kilograms (lbs) of raw garbage, including vegetable stems, potatoes (raw and fried) and fish remains, and placed it in an industrial waste disposal machine. Seventeen weeks later, only 3 kilograms (6.6 lbs) of waste remained, while the rest had turned to water and carbon dioxide. With a digestive rate of up to 96%, the bacteria from panda excrement is significantly more effective than most commercial disposal bacteria, which has a digestive rate of around 80%.

In 2003, Taguchi also claimed it was possible to harvest about 100 liters (26 gallons) of hydrogen gas for every kilogram (2.2 lbs) of waste treated with panda poo. At the time, he was exploring the possibility of integrating a hydrogen fuel cell into a waste disposal unit to sell to food processing companies in Japan.

Interestingly, Taguchi is not the first Japanese scientist to receive an Ig Nobel Prize for excrement-themed research. In 2007, researcher Mayu Yamamoto won the chemistry prize for developing a method for extracting vanillin an ingredient in vanilla fragrance and flavoring from cow dung.

Taguchi is the 13th Japanese person to receive an Ig Nobel Prize since the awards were established in 1991. Previous prize-winning achievements from Japan include the invention of karaoke, which received the Peace Prize, and the Tamagotchi, which received the Economics Prize.

The annual Ig Nobel Prizes are meant to honor scientific achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think, according to the founders at science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

[Links: Improbable Research, Abstract (2001), ABC (2003)]

Phasma insectoid robot (w/ video)

24 Aug 2009


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Phasma, a six-legged remote-controlled robot by takram design engineering, is built to run rapidly and dynamically like an insect.

Phasma insect robot by takram design engineering --

Described as an attempt to mimic a living organism purely through its motion, rather than its shape, the mechanical bug employs a design that reproduces some of the physics at work when an insect runs.

Phasma insect robot by takram design engineering --

Using components such as sliding cables, stainless steel springs and rubber joints, the designers were able to replicate the smooth and efficient locomotion seen in insects.

Phasma insect robot by takram design engineering --

Particularly interesting is Phasma's use of the so-called alternating tripod gait, a highly stable walking pattern commonly used by insects in the natural world.

Phasma insect robot by takram design engineering --

The video embedded above shows the Phasma at a recent demonstration at 21_21 Design Sight at Tokyo Midtown.

Phasma insect robot by takram design engineering --

[Link: takram design engineering]

Stuffed body of Hachiko (& other notable canines)

17 Aug 2009

The large and varied collection of stuffed and mounted animal specimens at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo includes several famous canines.

Hachiko at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --
Hachikō

The preserved body of Hachikō -- Japan's most famous dog -- is on display on the second floor of the museum's Japan Gallery wing. An Akita dog born in 1923, Hachikō is remembered for his deep loyalty to his owner. While his owner was alive, Hachikō would greet him at the end of each day at Shibuya station when he returned home from work. The man died in 1925, but Hachikō kept his daily routine, faithfully waiting for his owner every evening at the station for 10 years until he died in 1935. Hachikō's permanent presence at Shibuya station attracted widespread attention, and his legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty. [More]

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Jiro at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --
Jirō

On display next to Hachikō is the preserved body of Jirō, one of two Sakhalin Huskies famous for surviving a year in Antarctica after being abandoned during a failed scientific expedition to the South Pole. In February 1958, a Japanese survey team stationed in Antarctica left their base after extreme weather conditions prevented a replacement team from reaching the site. Thinking they would return soon, the team left 15 Sakhalin Huskies chained up at the unmanned base. However, due to fuel shortages, nobody was able to return for nearly a year. When the next survey team returned to the base in January 1959, they found that two of the dogs, Tarō and Jirō, had miraculously survived the ordeal. [More]

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Kai ken at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --
Kai Ken

Alongside two of Japan's most celebrated canines is the preserved body of an anonymous Kai Ken (a.k.a. "Tora Inu" or "Tiger Dog"). The Kai Ken is a rare breed of dog considered to be the most ancient and purest dog breed in Japan. Developed centuries ago in the isolated district of Kai (Yamanashi prefecture), the breed was used for hunting boar and deer. The Kai Ken breed was designated a national treasure in 1934. [More]

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Canine at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --

Canine at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo -- Canine at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --
Other canine specimens on display at National Science Museum

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Honshu Wolf, Japanese wolf, at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --
Honshū Wolf

On display in the museum's Global Gallery wing (third floor) is the preserved body of a Honsh? Wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax, or Nihon Ookami), one of two extinct species of Japanese Wolf (the other is the Hokkaido Wolf). This species, which once occupied the islands of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū, is thought to have become extinct due to a combination of rabies and human eradication. The last known Honshū Wolf is believed to have died in 1905 in Nara prefecture, though the exact date is disputed (and sightings are still reported occasionally). The stuffed specimen at the National Science Museum is one of five known to be in existence. [More]

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Canine at National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo --
Tasmanian Wolf

Another rare specimen on view is the Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus, a.k.a. "Tasmanian Wolf" or "Tasmanian Tiger"), a large carnivorous marsupial (not a canine) native to continental Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, which is believed to have gone extinct in the 1930s (though sightings are still reported). Here is some footage of what is believed to have been the last living Tasmanian Wolf, filmed in 1933. [More]

Old octopus toy paintings

12 Aug 2009

The Ningyo-do Bunko Database is a huge online collection of watercolor paintings by Kawasaki Kyosen (1877-1942). The collection consists of over 5,000 still-life images of antique toys and folk crafts from across Japan, including a few lovely octopus-themed items.

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
Papercraft octopus, Osaka

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
Paper octopus balloon (1930)

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
"Hanamaki" clay doll octopus and child, Iwate prefecture

Vintage octopus-themed toy illustration --
Top: Roly-poly toy // Bottom: Bell/whistle (both from Aichi prefecture, 1932)

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
Sesame seed roaster (with eyeball that pops out)

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
Octopus pot/whistle, Aichi prefecture (1933)

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
Dancing octopus papier-mache doll from Kameido Tenjin Shrine, Tokyo

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
Octopus bell

Vintage octopus toy illustration --
Octopus kite, Niigata prefecture (1932)

Vintage octopus toy illustration by Kawasaki Kyosen --
"Hanamaki" clay doll octopus, Iwate prefecture (1923)

The collection is organized into 60 galleries (Japanese only) that can be navigated by clicking the thumbnail images and arrows.

[Link: Ningyo-do Bunko Database via BibliOdyssey]

Japan fears massive jellyfish invasion this year

01 Jul 2009

Japanese researchers monitoring the activity of giant jellyfish in Chinese waters are warning of a potentially historic and catastrophic invasion this year.

Marine surveys conducted in late June have revealed alarming numbers of Nomura's jellyfish -- massive creatures that grow up to 2 meters (6 ft 7 in) in diameter and weigh as much as to 220 kilograms (about 450 lbs) -- lurking in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea. The researchers warn that ocean currents may bring swarms of the monster jellies to Japan, which has been plagued by similar invasions in recent years.

Echizen jellyfish --
Nomura's jellyfish, 2007 (Photo: Sankei)

Based on what they have seen so far, the researchers warn this year's onslaught of Nomura's jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai, or Echizen kurage in Japanese) could deliver a massive blow to Japan's fishing industry, rivaling even the devastating 2005 deluge that caused tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) in damage nationwide.

The surveys are being conducted by a team led by Shinichi Ue, a professor of biological oceanography at Hiroshima University who also chairs a government research committee tasked with developing technology to predict and control jellyfish explosions. Ue has been monitoring the population density of Nomura's jellyfish in the southern Yellow Sea and northern East China Sea since 2006.

Between June 20 and 24, 2009, Ue's team observed numerous specimens with umbrellas measuring 10 to 50 centimeters across, and they calculated an average distribution of 2.14 jellyfish per 100 square meters. This figure is more than 200 times higher than the 0.01 jellyfish per 100 square meters observed in the same region in 2008. It is also nearly triple the 0.77 jellyfish per 100 square meters observed in 2007, when the fishing industry in the Sea of Japan suffered widespread damage.

Echizen jellyfish --
Nomura's jellyfish, 2007 (Photo: Sankei)

To make matters worse, this year's swarms appear to be taking a more direct and southerly route to Japan, unlike in 2007 when the jellyfish appeared to take a more northerly route, approaching the Sea of Japan coast from the direction of Korea. According to the researchers, the ocean currents could bring unprecedented numbers of Nomura's jellyfish to Japan's Pacific coast, which typically sees far fewer of the monster blobs than the Sea of Japan coast.

Nomura's jellyfish typically bloom in Chinese waters in spring, and they mature into adults as ocean currents slowly carry them north. By July, when the first swarms reach Tsushima (just north of the southern island of Kyushu), many jellyfish are as large as sumo wrestlers. At this size, it only takes about 5 or 10 of them to destroy a commercial fishing net.

In addition to damaging nets, the giant jellyfish are blamed for killing other fish with their venom, lowering the quality and quantity of catches, increasing the risk of capsizing trawlers, and stinging fishermen.

In 2005, the fishing industry reported over 100,000 cases of jellyfish-related damage nationwide. At the peak of the invasion that year, an estimated 300 to 500 million monster jellyfish passed through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan each day.

[Source: Asahi]

All-purpose tanuki testicles (prints by Kuniyoshi)

23 Jun 2009

In the mid-1840s, ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) created a number of woodblock prints showing legendary tanuki (raccoon dogs) using their humorously large scrota in creative ways.

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
River fishing

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Shelter from evening showers

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Rokurokubi (long-necked monster) disguise

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Net fishing

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Making dashi (soup stock)

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Weightlifting

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Catfish mallet

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Coming and going

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Making mochi

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Visiting Konpira, the guardian deity of seafaring

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Boy's festival

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Cause of chronic abdominal pain

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Shichifukujin (the Seven Lucky Gods) disguise

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Fortune-telling tent

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Shop signs

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
River crossing

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Towboat

Tanuki print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi --
Seine fishing

See more of Kuniyoshi's tanuki images at Kuniyoshi Project (1, 2).