Bori-kuma (熊彫り, also known as 北海道 木彫り熊 Hokkaidō kubori kuma) are wooden carvings of bears that usually eat or bite into chum salmons. They were popular souvenirs of Hokkaidō, the second-largest and northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago. The winters there are particularly severe with lots of snow, frost, and frozen lakes; the summers too are much cooler than in other parts of Japan.

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It is said that almost every home in Japan had a bori-kuma. After the Second World War Hokkaidō turned into a popular tourist destination. Lots of travellers acquired wooden bear carvings as souvenirs for friends and family. The most famous carving is that of a bear holding a salmon in his mouth. Other woodcrafts depict wild or growling bears. As Hokkaido is home to wild bears, quite a few sculptors drew from their own experiences of bear encounters.

It seems to be a common belief in Japan that this kind of wood carvings originated in Hokkaidō; however, it is more likely that the tradition was inspired by Swiss woodcrafts from Brienz in the Bernese Oberland. Carved models from Switzerland are on display in the Yakumochō Carved Wooden Bears Museum in Hokkaidō. Tokugawa Yoshichika (徳川義親, 1886-1976), the last daimyō of the Owari branch of the Tokugawa clan, introduced those woodcarvings to Hokkaido. Yoshichika was a botanist, founder of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, and a political activist who supported the failed military coup of 1936. In 1921-22, he travelled with his wife through Europe, where he also spent some time with Albert Einstein aboard the 'Hakone-maru'.

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Tokugawa Yoshichika

Tokugawa Yoshikatsu (1824-1883) who adopted Yoshichika in 1908 developed the region of Yakumo-chō (八雲町), later home to the Tokugawa Nōjō (徳川農場) farm which was open to members of the Owari Tokugawa as well as peasants who settled there. Yoshichika visited this farm often and tried to support the settlers. Their living conditions were arduous, not only because of the climate but also because most of them hailed from samurai families. Yoshichika was very concerned about their meagre income during the winter and looked for ways to improve their livelihoods.

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Examples of anthropomorphic Swiss bear carvings

When he was travelling through Switzerland, he was most impressed by the Swiss wood sculptors whose skills were acclaimed all over Europe. He returned to Japan with scores of wooden bears, letter openers, pen holders, wooden corks, plates, cigarette and sewing boxes and showed them to the settlers in Yakumo-cho. He encouraged them to produce similar woodcraft during the winter and promised to purchase their carvings no matter what their quality. Gradually, the sculptors learned the ropes and turned their art into an additional source of income.

Wooden bear carvings from Hokkaidō gained local and international fame and remain traditional souvenirs of Hokkaidō. Nowadays, however, demand is dwindling, and only a few wooden sculptors practise their trade. Wood carvings of owls have replaced the iconic salmon-eating bears.

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A more common souvenir nowadays: bori-kuma carved of coal.

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