The Matagi are traditional hunters living in small towns and villages in the northern highlands of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Since their origins, in the mid-16th century, they have survived thanks to the consumption and selling of meat, skins and other products derived from hunting. Their main prey is the Japanese black bear, a subspecies listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
However, the Matagi never approach hunting as a recreational or sporting activity. They only capture what is necessary for regulated sale and self-consumption, or for the purpose of protecting rural and agricultural settlements from wild animals. Although they have evolved in various aspects, they still retain many ideals and beliefs inherited from their ancestors. These communities recognize nature as a conscious presence that sustains them, but expects responsible behavior in return. The Matagi believe they are granted permission by the mountain goddess (Yama-no-Kami) to hunt. Therefore the activity is carried out with a sense of utmost reverence and respect for the natural balance.
As a result of Fukushima’s nuclear incidents of 2011, the State prohibited many Matagi communities to market bear meat –mainly in the prefectures of Gunma, Tochigi and Fukushima itself– due to the high risk of radiation poisoning. Recently the Japanese authorities lifted the veto, and the Matagi were able to resume what has been their main economic activity for centuries.
Neverthless, in the context of a highly globalized, industrialized and urbanized 21st century Japan, the Matagi face a more than likely extinction of their cultural heritage. The global aging of the Japanese population, the legal and regulatory limitations regarding hunting and the attachment to values that no longer germinate among the younger generations –who migrate en masse from rural environments to the city– are some of the reasons why the hunters are left without much hope of preserving their legacy.
According to tradition, the goddess of the mountain mistrusts other women and therefore prevents them from accessing her domain. However, the need for social change has prevailed over religious convictions and, faced with a growing disinterest among young men to continue this tradition, the first cases of Matagi women, accepted and trained as hunters, have recently emerged. Women who –as can be observed on a global scale and in all strata of society– are claiming a position of equality in all fields.
The reportage has been published in different national and international media, including the Spanish/Portuguese edition of National Geographic Magazine in January 2021. The clever combination of design, text and photographs earned it a nomination as "Best Edit", a recognition granted by the prestigious magazine among all its international editions.
From the different awards obtained, the Banff Mountain Photo Essay Award 2019 (Canada) and the 2021 Journalism and Communication Award granted by INJUVE (Spain) stand out.
The project has aroused great interest from the Spanish (Tokyo) and Japanese (Madrid) embassies; the respective ambassadors have recognized that "it’s an artistic proposal and socio-cultural exchange that reinforces historical ties and contributes to the knowledge of a traditional Japanese subculture, unknown even among a large part of the Japanese population."
MATAGI currently has a traveling exhibition sponsored by SIGMA and B Travel which, after being shown in Barcelona and Madrid, has been exhibited by the Spanish Embassy in Tokyo in autumn 2022.
In 2021, OAK STORIES published the photobook MATAGI, an ideal format in which to share the content of this project. The chosen form is a leporello, that unfolds like a kajekiju (a traditional parchment), providing two covers and three reading possibilities that reveal different aspects of the story when browsed in the Western or Eastern reading direction.
This object synthesizes the full history of the Matagi community. The format chosen for this publication is the leporello, and our readers will find two covers and three different ways of reading it.
When unfolding accordion book in the western reading direction, narrative based solely on images is revealed. If we choose to start from that same cover but to the left, the original Matagi legend appears.
The second cover introduces a historical fictional text about the evolution of these traditional hunters in Japan, using the memories of the mountain goddess, Yama-no-Kami as the guiding thread.