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Nara Park (Nara Koen) is a large, pleasant park in central Nara, established in 1880. It is the location of many of Nara's main attractions including Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji and the Nara National Museum, a museum specialzed in Buddhist art. The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered messengers of the gods in Shinto, Nara's deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated a National Treasure. They go shopping for biscuits in the grocery stores near the park!!

Extending eastward from Nara, the Kasuga Hills have been inhabited by deer (sika deer : Cervus nippon) since prehistoric times. From antiquity, these hills have been considered sacred by the local people. In the 8th century, when Nara became the capital of Japan, the Fujiwara family established Kasuga-Taisha as their tutelary shrine at this location. The history of the shrine compiled in medieval times indicates that Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the first of the shrine’s four deities was invited from Kashima (Ibaraki prefecture) and arrived riding a white deer in 768. Accordingly, the shrine and Kôfuku-ji, an associated Buddhist Monastery which exercised power over the Yamato Province, began to insist on the divinity of the deer inhabiting the Kasuga Hills. These deer were depicted on religious paintings as sacred animals on which deities are mounted. These paintings of medieval times are generally called Kasuga Mandala.

Subsequently, the deer of Nara have been strictly protected by the local authorities of all ages. This protection has sometimes been excessively strict, such that the penalty for killing deer was a death. Father Luis Frois, a Jesuit missionary from Portugal, wrote in his report dated February 20, 1565 that many deer freely roamed the streets of Nara and no one harmed them because they belonged to the shrine.

Kawaji Toshiakira, a government officer of the Tokugawa shogunate at Edo (present day Tokyo) in the 19th century, was in the service of the governor of Nara from 1846 to 1851. On the 30th day, 7th month, 3rd year of the Kôka era (September 20, 1846 by the Gregorian calendar), Kawaji was amazed to receive an indictment against a young man who accidentally killed a deer. He persuaded the authority of Kofuku-ji Monastery to withdraw the indictment. He noted in his diary, known as Neifu-kiji (Records in Nara), that he had believed that these laws, which made the killing of deer a capital offence should only have existed in literary fictions. After reviewing the records preserved in the governor’s office, he also noted that the last enforcement of that law was in 1637 and that it had never been done since.

After World War II, the divinity of the deer was officially renounced. Today, about 1,200 deer inhabit the area around Nara Park in a semi-wild state. They are designated and protected as a natural treasure by the government and attract tourists from the entire country and abroad.

By Noboru Ogata, Kyoto University

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