• creative
  • photographer
  • storyteller
  • explorer
  • filmmaker
Japan, 2019


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.

Hunters: an endangered species

The first Matagi woman

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.

National Geographic Explorer

Knowledge of tradition

Between 2017 and 2019, OAK traveled twice to the Akita and Yamagata provinces in the north of Honshū, the main island of Japan, encountering the privilege of being the first documentary makers from outside the Japanese country to portray the life of the Matagi hunters, specifically the ones from the communities established in Oguni and Animatagi.

During the first trip, our team witnessed the beginning of a process of transformation in the Matagi community, as a result of an unprecedented change in its codes and traditions: the incorporation of the first female hunter after five centuries of history.

In 2018, the National Geographic Society awarded us one of its prestigious research and exploration grants to continue with the investigation of this project. This recognition allowed us to return to Japan in 2019 to further explore their history and better understand the evolution of the community.

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 in Europe sponsored by SIGMA, after being shown in Barcelona, Madrid and Tokyo.


Matagi Book

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.

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