Whenever I see a turtle in the wild it reminds me that I am in a foreign place. Living here for five years I’ve become acculturated to certain things. The busy trains, the neon lights, none of that really seems strange anymore. But when I ride my bike past the big pond in the park, and I see a turtle in there swimming along, or the ripple as one quickly sinks its head back beneath the water, then I feel like I’m still in a strange, exotic country. In Japan, there is an old superstition attached to turtles, which stems from a story called Urashima Taro, in which a fisherman saves a turtle from being tortured by a gang of local children. The fisherman is rewarded with a visit to the Dragon-king’s palace under the sea. He spends three days there and when he goes back home he discovers that everyone he ever knew is gone. Nobody knows him, but he finds that he has become a legend, somebody who disappeared three hundred years ago. Eventually his age catches up with him and his body turns to dust. I kind of feel like that whenever I go back the village where I grew up.
Despite the unfortunate fate of Urashima Taro, it is considered lucky to rescue a turtle. I’d saved one once from a crow. Cities in England are full of mangy pigeons, but here in Tokyo they have these great big Asian jungle crows that are bigger than ravens. They are smart, ruthless and bear grudges. You have to put nets over your rubbish on collection days, or else they will cut through the bags with their blade-like beaks and rip out any meat remnants, scattering the rubbish in the strong winds that blow up and down the narrow streets. Walking my dog in the park one day, I saw this great big crow, one of the Hashibuto-garasu with the ugly, curved beaks like a scimitar. It had this thing in front of it which it was pecking ruthlessly. At first I thought it was just a dropped handbag or something. Then I saw it was a fully-grown turtle. I never knew crows would eat turtles. I shooed the crow away, which took more guts than you’d think, since the jungle crow has a wingspan of 60 centimetres and is about the size of a sparrow-hawk. Anyway, I picked up the turtle and I saw a little blood but I couldn’t be sure if the thing was alive or dead. I put it in the water of the big pond, on a little ledge at the side just in case it really was dead. When I came back for the evening dog walk, there was no sign of the turtle. It must have been OK, I’m happy to report. I have also rescued about two or three really little ones. Turtles lay their eggs on land, and then the babies hatch and get massacred as they try to find the water again. Despite their armour, turtles are surprisingly fragile and low on the food chain. Each time I pick up one the babies and carry them over to the water, I feel lucky. I know I am doing the right thing. Not many chances you get as a human to interfere with nature and yet feel you are doing the right thing. It’s a good feeling, and it connects me to this strange land where I have come to make my home.
But then, there was this other time when it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. That was the time I saw the Oni.
I was coming back from drinks after work. It was late, maybe almost midnight. Dark in the park, and raining. I was cycling with one of those clear plastic umbrellas you seem only to be able to get in Asia. Just as I was crossing the bridge across the park to the other side where I live, I saw this man. I say he was a man, but really he was more like a hobgoblin. He had a face the shape of a crescent moon, pointy at both ends and pockmarked features in-between. His arms were very long, and his legs seemed very short. But the thing that really made him seem like a hobgoblin was just the aura of wrongness about him. The way his actions seemed to be beyond the comprehension of ordinary logic. The man was Oni for sure. He had a net with him on the end of a long bamboo cane, like the ones children use on nature field-trips. His bike was parked nearby, and it was loaded with all sorts of paraphernalia for capturing and imprisoning things. He was already behind the fence, the official-seeming barrier that tried to keep nature safe. He was sticking his net into the dark black water with vicious certainty and cruel determination. He seemed to know exactly where the thing he was looking for was. I slowed my bike to look at him, something primordially wrong about the whole thing. Perhaps I’d sensed that even before I turned the corner. Why was he there at that time? I can’t be sure, because I don’t think I actually saw him fish a turtle out of the water. But I knew that’s what he was after. Now, this particular spot is a narrow path through the park that connects Katsushika-ward in Tokyo to Misato-shi in Saitama. We live in Saitama, and take this path every time I go to work on the way to the nearest station. We walk our dog there in Mizumoto park, and when I am with Oscar, we often stop to look at this one turtle who seems to live in this very small patch of water which is a self-contained part of the reservoir that gives the nearby area its name. Mizumoto means ‘source of water’. This turtle is special because we’ve seen her so many times. She is very very shy, even for a turtle. As soon as we stop to look at her, she pops her head away, but because it’s such a small enclave and because we go past so often, we’ve seen this turtle many times and Oscar and I like to look for her. And I knew that this Oni was after her. I could feel it. That was the aura of wrongness that I felt in that dark moment. This was our turtle, and this goblin-man was after her. The turtle’s fear was almost as palpable as the evil void of empathy that this Oni used to fish with. Although I didn’t see him get her, I knew she was in danger. But I hoped that she would get away. It was much too dark to really see, and the turtle could just swim off to the main reservoir, or dive deep and hide away. It seemed unlikely that the Oni could catch this shy and wary turtle. I willed her to escape, but I still felt afraid for her.
Although I had a fair bit of drink in me, I wasn’t nearly brave enough to actually challenge the Oni. I did slow my bike down and looked at him hard, but I had to keep going and get home. I told Kimie about him. She believes in Oni, but this was the first time either of us had ever seen one.
I’m not sure how long after that, but maybe a couple of weeks later, Oscar and I were on the way to the nearby supermarket, which is hilariously called Life. We went past this house that is on the way, a house we thought looks nice and interesting because it’s kind of a bungalow with a nice little patio and usually toys in the little speck of garden that it has. We think it’s grandparents who live there, as the toys don’t move around very often. Oscar, riding on the seat at the front of the bike, was using his sharp eyes to notice things and point them out to me. He’s very observant, but I’d already seen it. A turtle. It was in a rectangular glass aquarium, plenty big enough for small fish but agonisingly small for a turtle. It was just on the walkway to the house, with a lid on. There was a tiny bit of stale green water in the tank, no rocks or other features. A turtle in a glass prison, an agonising position near the road where cars go past night and day. Nowhere to hide. And I knew without knowing how, I knew that this was her. Our shy little turtle from the enclave. The Oni must have got her, and this must be the Oni’s house. How wrong we were, to think that it might be nice people living in this house. Grandkids or no, that turtle should not be in that tank. I said so to Oscar and he agreed. We both felt sorry for the turtle, we both wanted to help it. We thought it should be back in the park, in the wild. What a cruel place to keep a turtle. Not even a rock to sit on. Having to keep its head up out of the water. How could it sleep? Without enough water to be fully submerged, it would have to sleep with its neck out of the water, cars and motorbikes zooming past all night. Nowhere to hide, nowhere to go, nothing to do. Oscar and I talked about it all the way to the supermarket and back. I told Kimie, and said I knew it was the Oni who had caught our shy turtle friend. I wanted to rescue the turtle. Kimie was adamant. I was not to go near the turtle, not to set it free. It was now a pet. Maybe it had always been a pet. How did I know it was the same turtle?
Maybe, instead of going there at night to rescue the turtle, maybe I could go there with Oscar and we could ask them to release her. Also no. Kimie thought that it was none of our business. We had just moved to the area. We didn’t want to make any trouble. It was bad enough that someone was ringing our doorbell and running away before we could answer. As a foreigner here, I stood out enough already. Kimie was very unnerved at the idea that I would do anything that could get me in trouble.
So I tried another approach. I posted on Facebook, hoping that my Japanese friends might know something about the law regarding cruelty to animals. Perhaps there was something like the RSPCA which I could tell about the turtle’s plight. One of my students, Riku, checked and found nothing in Japanese law that could help the poor turtle. It turns out that you can legally take a turtle from the wild and keep it in a glass prison. Furthermore, another student, named Emi, begged me to leave the turtle alone. Like Kimie, she thought it might even be a family pet. Emi asked if the turtle had a red spot on its neck. I said yes and she told me that the red-eared slider turtle is not native to Japan. Emi said it was an invader from China, but actually the red slider comes from Mississippi in the US. There was even an article in the Japan Times, describing the stress these alien species are putting on the ecosystem. They now vastly outnumber the endemic population of ishigame pond turtles eight to one. The slider is something like the grey squirrel in England, classed as an invasive species and doing harm to the local ecosystem, replacing the native species and upsetting the natural balance.
Who is to blame for all of this? Why do red sliders and grey squirrels invade our countries? Of course, we humans are to blame. In the 1970s, red sliders were sold as pets or given away as prizes at the local matsuri festivals. They were a popular pet, but when they outgrew their lodgings people just chucked them in the nearby ponds. Grey squirrels too, were imported to the UK in the 1870s as ‘fashionable additions to estates’ according to one source. It sickens me that we describe these animals as threats, invaders, and claim they are the ones damaging the ecosystem, as if they have a personal agency beyond their own will to survive. The onus is on us, as people. Calling them invaders is how we later justify culls and other measures to ‘restore nature’.
Releasing this turtle or keeping it as a pet? It’s ethical and unethical at the same time. It’s a dilemma of choice and morality. Its uninethical. Its antidisuninethcal. And, all the while, this poor turtle is suffering in a glass tank of water by the side of a road, occasionally yanked out and fed lettuce by the grandkids. Probably, the Oni feels they are helping the environment by taking this creature out of its home and keeping it away from its unnatural-natural habitat.
I doubted that reasoning would work. Technically, me taking the turtle and releasing it could be seen as theft. If my employer heard I’d had trouble with the police, that could be very bad for me and my contract might not be renewed. The mortgage. Oscar and Kimie. Over a turtle.
I’d have to go there at night, dressed in black. No dog with me, although I often take her on night walks. She’s too distinctive, too blonde. I’d go alone. Probably, I’d be more than a little drunk too. It would have to be a night when I’d already been out drinking. When I was coming back late. I’d have to remember to pack a balaclava. My foreign face would be a dead giveaway. In order not to look too strange, it’d need to be cold, too. Winter time. But before the frost and freezes set in. I’d need to wear the right shoes. I need to have a getaway planned. But I’d need to take her back to the enclave or she might not be in the right place, she might be in someone else’s territory, or a place where she couldn’t find her way. That path is often quite busy, and I must not be seen by anybody. For a few weeks after too, I’d be worried that the police would be looking for me. It would be several months of anxiety until I’d know for sure I’d got away with it. I could never tell Kimie, or Oscar. Never tell anyone that I stole a pet turtle out of someone’s garden. I had no real evidence other than a feeling that this turtle was the shy little turtle Oscar and I used to stop and say hello to. The one I saw, the one I felt, trying to escape the Oni man’s net.
Several weeks passed. Perhaps even a month or more. But I kept thinking of that turtle. Then one night I was going out with friends. I knew I would be back late, and I decided tonight was the night. On the way home, I bought a little bottle of whiskey to help me find the courage to steal someone’s pet. A neighbour’s pet. The grandchildren might even have named this turtle by now. But its conditions had not changed. Its life was not a decent life to live. No animal should be kept in a glass tank of water by the side of the road. Red sliders can live for 30 years. It had been almost half a year now, since I’d seen the Oni and I’d never seen our shy turtle friend in the water since then. I felt that this was something for me to do. I was the one who this had fallen to. I had to get that little turtle out of there.
So I did. Drunk as I was, everything went to plan. It was raining and very cold. A black wax jacket, a wax hat and a snood to cover my face. My eyes still a giveaway, I would have to make sure nobody saw me. Very few foreigners live around here, even though it’s so close to Tokyo. I parked up my bike around the corner. Went and grabbed the turtle. It was surprisingly big. Heavy. Cold and slippery, almost muddy even. The shells actually carry many germs so you are supposed to wash your hands after you touch them. I had gloves on and they got wet. I ran with the turtle and put her gently in the bike basket. Not an ideal place for her, at the moment even less comfortable than the tank. Plus, she’d be scared. Scared as hell. More scared than me. There was someone near the road, but they only saw me near there. They didn’t see me grab the turtle. On the bike, I sped to the enclave, less than one-minute cycle away. Nobody around. Onto the path, off the bike. Over the fence and down towards the water, turtle under my arm again now. I slipped and fell, muddy knees. I was already soaked through from the rain. The turtle slid into the water. She disappeared straight away. It was so dark I could hardly see anything. Or was it bright? I remember a street light shining on me as I looked to my right and saw a person going past on their bike. They’d seen me, seen me near the water. They must be wondering what I was doing, but did they see me release the turtle? Hopefully not. I got on the bike and powered off, opposite direction to my house. I cycled around the park, singing, rejoicing at the freedom of the turtle, taking swigs of whiskey and seeing the deep dark water from the turtle’s own point of view as she slid back away into freedom. I felt bad for the grandchildren. I felt sorry for the people, cruel as they are, who would wake up the next day and wonder where their turtle had gone. But this whole act was a protest. A protest for animal rights. A protest against humans taking things out of the wild. A protest against us having introduced this species in the first place too. Now we’ve done it, we have to live with it. Our actions have consequences.
A pounding headache the next day, I said nothing about the turtle to anybody. I actually got quite ill. Influenza or something, perhaps from being out in the rain, maybe germs from the turtle’s shell got in my mouth as I was swigging from the whiskey. Because I was also hungover, there was no sympathy from Kimie. I felt awful, and the waiting part of the plan began. I saw in my mind the family as they called the police to report a stolen turtle. Would they send an officer for such a trivial thing? Surely not, but then the crime rate is very low here. Perhaps a stolen turtle is a crime, is something they would investigate. I tried not to look when we went past the house and saw the empty tank. Then the tank was taken away.
Weeks went by and I slowly relaxed. And then, one day, I realised I’d gotten away with it. But not really. What if I see another turtle in a tank like that? What about all the turtles out there, in tanks, in cages? There is a Chinese supermarket in Ueno that sells live turtles. They are sold to be eaten. There were hundreds last time I was there, I felt awful. What about other animals too? How many invasive species are there in countries around the world? How many ecological disasters have we caused by simply releasing pets that got too big? This event, this story, is as meaningless to the ecosystem as one turtle is to that great big reservoir. But for me, and for that one red-eared slider, that was a victory. After telling this story, someone called me a ‘superhero’. It made me feel like Urashima Taro. Although I didn’t get to go to the dragon kingdom, I feel lucky and I feel whole every time I see a turtle in the pond now. When Oscar is old enough to keep secrets, maybe I’ll tell him about it too.
Image by Andō, Hiroshige, 1797-1858
Stephen Prime isn’t his real name and he isn’t even the real him. He’s just one of a number of masks he wears to get through life. By day he’s a university lecturer in Japan. He writes stories because he can’t not write them.