Japanese Macaques live in hierarchical troops with little social mobility. Every monkey has a ranking within the troop. To become the troop leader, males most rise up the ranks before they can attempt to overthrow the current alpha male. Leadership is not for for faint hearted as it requires aggression and strength. Troop leaders are not afraid to put others in their place if they step out of line. But to be a great leader doesn’t mean being a bully, it means using strength to create harmony within the group by breaking up fights and fairly solves disputes. A great alpha male is adored by his troop(mostly the females) not feared.
Takasakiyama Monkey Park
Takasakiyama Money Park is one of the best places in Japan to see the hierarchy of Japanese Macaque society in action. It is located in Beppu, Japan is a Japanese Macaque reserve home to 1500 monkeys divided into 2 troops B, and C.( A was dissolved after being defeated by troop C). While it is called a zoological park, the monkeys are indeed wild animals and can and go as they please. After the end of WWII, the Japanese masques population increased greatly in the Takasakiyama area and were wreaking havoc on farms. Ignoring calls for culling, the mayor of Beppu at the time decided to feed them which would lure them away from farm and double as a tourist attraction.
It is quite easy to get to, a ten minute bus ride from Beppu station. Though it is on a mountain, so it will require a bit of walking but there is also a cute monkey themed monorail for those that are incline inclined. Everyone loves a monorail, it put Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook on the map. If my memory serves me, you have to pay a fee to ride the monorail.
Once you reach the top, you will see monkeys far as the eyes can see. From grooming, to playing, to eating, an array of behaviors can be observed in a more natural way than a traditionally zoo.
The monkeys are not kept in enclosures and are free to come and go.
The reason that they come is the feedings done by staff using wheat with the occasional sweet potatoes. I don’t think the promise of a wheat would entice me off the couch let alone to scale down a mountain but the moneys sure do love it. A sea of brown engulfs the wheat scattering staff member and tourists have to be careful as the Macaque have no qualms about running through your legs or climbing on top of you if you are in the way of their food. The staff member is fitted with a headset and shares the name, ranking, and backstory of each monkey. The incredible stories caught my attention as they show the unique personalities and motivation of each animal and makes it not surprising that we share a common ancestor. Undoubtedly we view these wonderful creature through a human centric lens and personifying them to make them more relatable for us. But at the same time, they really do have a lot in common with us and our societies.
Tales from Takasakiyama
Takasakiyama Monkey Park stands out from other monkey reserves because of the epic stories about seemingly impossible rises to power that feel like they could be a Game of Thrones plot line.There are two (true)stories that best show this, in each the protagonist defies the odds but for different motivations. One is driven by power and a contempt for restrictive power structures, the other by propelled love, willing to sacrifice everything for it. We will begin with latter , a great love story but please note that is not contain any kissing in the rain or inadeptly sized doors.
The Story of Benz
Benz named after the luxury car, Mercedes Benz has legendary status at Takasakiyma Monkey Park. A statue of him and a shrine sits at the entrance of the park. Why has one primate out of 1000s had such a lasting impact even after his death in 2014? Benz had a history of defying the strict hierarchical rules of Japanese Macaque society. Benz at 9 years old was the youngest leader of troop B, where 20 years old is typically the norm. Just like in human society, the oldest and most out of touch have all the power. He abdicated his primate throne when he fell in love with a female troop C and left his troop for hers. Benz like Meatloaf would truly do anything for love. He started at the complete bottom, being the lowest ranking member which meant last for food and mates. Benz even though he was an outsider, managed to rise to the top and claim the number 1 spot in troop C, another rare and extraordinary feat. In no smart part to his role in the war between Troop C and the powerful troop A. His strength and bravery help turn the tides of war into his troop favor. Troop C was triumphant and troop A was effectively destroyed, banished from the feeding grounds. While no where I read specifically says it, I like to imagine that he gave a Patton style speech in front of a flag. His military prowess earned the respect of his brethren and he was once again made a leader at the age of 33. Not only was the only monkey to have belonged to lead two different troops at Takisakiyama, but he was also one of the oldest. A great warrior, he put a valiant fight against mortality but this is a battle that not even Benz could win.He died at age 36, over a 100 years in human years.
Yakei, the monkey who defied gender roles and familial obligations
In July 2021, a new record was set with the inauguration of Yakei ,something not even the great Benz could do. Yakei smashed gender barriers to become the first female troop leader in Takasakiyama. She rules the largest troop in the park, troop B. Most troops are led by an alpha male which females occupying secondary roles. Similar to US society, with 0 out of 46 women have been president despite being half the population. Japanese macaque matriarchs are extremely rare with the only other notable example occurring in capitivity at Ueno zoo in Tokyo. Usually the highest role a female can have is alpha female while powerful is still subservient to the alpha male. Yakei had an interesting journey to the top. First, she challenged her own mom and took her status as alpha female. That must have made the following year’s thanksgiving awkward. But she wasn’t done there, just a short time later she dethroned the alpha male, the 31 year old Nanchu to claim his title. Nanchu being and old time stood little chance against the much younger Yakei. Her status has been proven by the peanut test where researchers give the monkeys peanuts and see whoever eats first is the alpha. She behaves like a leader too, climbing and shaking trees a behavior usually only seen in males. But Yakei position is not secure and mating season may lead to her downfall. A potential challenger has emerged in the form of Luffy, a young male is previous years try to mate with Yakei but she has consistently rejected him and absolutely loves him. The spurned Luffy has responded not by joining 4-chan and calling everyone Chad and Stacy and instead has been pushing Yakei away during eating time. But it is too early to tell if Yakei has been usurp or if she just signaling that she just not in interested in Luff. I bet that Luffy also tells her to smile more but smiling would actually be a suitable response to him since bearing teeth is a sign of aggression in primates. Let’s hope that Yakei can hold onto power and have a long tenure as troop leader of Troop B.
How to get there
The best way to get there is take a 20 minute bus from Beppu Station and get off at Takasakiyama. From there it is a 5 minute walk to the entrance of Takasakiyama Zoological Garden.
Admission: 520 yen for adults and 260 yen for middle school and elementary students. Children under elementary school age are fre