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Kerama Deer


Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

My father’s home island is a small island called Geruma. Even most Okinawans don’t know that name. Among the populated islands that make up Zamami Village, Geruma is the smallest; an airport was built on the neighboring uninhabited island, and in ‘98, a long hoped for bridge was built between Geruma and neighboring Aka Island, but Geruma remains small.

When I was a child growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, in August during the Obon holidays, we went to stay with my grandmother and grandfather on Geruma. You could walk the entire settlement in about five minutes, and there was nothing there but the beautiful ocean. I wasn’t a good swimmer, so I was pretty bored. Compared to Naha where we lived, Geruma was strikingly lonely. I was, however, impressed by the number of neighborhood households that kept keramajika—Kerama deer. Whenever my parents brought me to Geruma, I usually went to see them. I knew there were deer on the islands, but until then I had never seen a wild deer. I imagined them standing stock still and silent in a little stable or something. My mother was from Tokashiki Island, where we spent the remainder of the summer holidays, but I never did see deer there.

Kerama deer were originally brought to the uninhabited Kerama islands by the mainlanders from Yamato (modern-day Japan) while they were visiting sometime in the seventeenth century. They are the only species of Japanese deer found in subtropical climates. I don’t think deer are particularly Okinawan. But they have survived against the odds on the Kerama islands, Aka Island, Yakabi Island (which is uninhabited), Zamami, and Tokashiki. They have crossed the seas. During the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) periods, on the heavily populated islands of Tokashiki and Zamami, Kerama deer were hunted to extinction to prevent the damage they inflicted on agricultural fields, but they continued living on uninhabited islands and islands with smaller populations like Geruma and Aka. They even survived the Battle of Okinawa. The Kerama Islands are just west of the main island, so the Americans landed there first in order to stage the Battle of Okinawa. 

After my grandmother and grandfather passed away, we moved their tōtōmē—their funerary tablets—to our house in Naha, and our visits to the islands dropped off. My knowledge of the Kerama deer was reduced to stories I heard on the news about how their numbers were declining and how even the Kerama deer kept as pets on Geruma had disappeared. My father passed away. The distance between Geruma and me became so great that even the deer couldn’t cross it.

I encountered the Kerama deer again around ‘91. By chance, a friend of mine had become a teacher for the combined elementary-junior high schools on Geruma, so I started visiting every so often. The island had changed a little, and though there were more commuter flights to the mainland, it was as empty as ever. But that was precisely how I came to understand that Geruma was an amazing island. The crystal clear waters and the little beaches, mountains with precipitous cliffs, and the endless soaring sky. Everything was so familiar, but as a child, I hadn’t even bothered to notice it. One night when I was visiting to participate in the autumn sports festival for the school, my friend’s friend invited us to go see the deer—they drove us to neighboring Aka with its airfield. The airfield is located on the highest point of the island on a little terrace, and on the steep road up to the top, there were Kerama deer. It was strange to see wild deer at such a close distance. As we drew nearer, they turned to look at us. Their eyes reflected in the dark. It happened to be breeding season, so the males were wandering around in search of females. Come to think of it, in the night their sharp high cries occasionally rang through the mountains—kēn, kyōn. It is precisely because this island is so small and because it is cut off by the ocean that they have survived here.

When I visited Geruma again in the spring, on the deck of the ferry back to Naha I noticed two deer on the beach situated on the opposite side of the island from the Kerama settlement. They looked like baby deer. Bambi, it’s Bambi. Were they playing on the beach? Or were they seeing my ferry off? I was moved by the sight. These are Kerama deer, yes, but here we can call them true “Geruma deer.”