Within Japan’s Yaejima Island chain, southwest of Okinawa, lies the mysterious, remote Iriomote Island. The sparsely populated island is a land of dense mangrove swamps and unexplored, impenetrable, mist shrouded rain forests. It is easy for one to look upon this landscape and think they are in the deepest parts of the Amazon, or the jungles of Africa rather than in Japan. The island is home to many endemic species of flora and fauna that have evolved in isolation and are found nowhere else on Earth. If ever there was some forgotten lost world in Japan, then this mysterious place is it.
The island is already home to one unique enigmatic animal, the rarely seen Iriomote wildcat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis), an indigenous wildcat about the size of a house cat which was discovered in 1965. It is thought to be distantly related to leopard cats of the Asian mainland, from which the species diverged and subsequently evolved in isolation on the island long ago, and is often referred to as a “living fossil.” The Iriomote wildcat inhabits mostly the remote jungles of the island and is so rare and elusive that most long term residents of the island have never even seen one. Indeed, many residents are not even aware that such a cat exists. Fewer than 100 of the Iriomote wildcats are thought to exist in the wild.
If accounts are anything to go by, then the Iriomote wildcat is not the only wildcat species to call the island home. In the thick interior of the island, a much larger cat is said to stalk through jungles.
Although Iriomote island wasn’t inhabited by humans in earnest until after World War II, hunters on the island occasionally brought back stories of encountering mysterious big cats roaming the wilderness long before the smaller known Iriomote wildcat was even discovered. The mystery cats were said to be anywhere from 1 meter (3.3 feet) to up to 2 meters (6.6 feet) in length, and similar in appearance to a leopard or jaguar, with prominent spots covering the body, although some reports describe stripes more like a tiger.
A common feature of sightings is the cat’s exceptionally long tail, which is described as being longer than the creature’s body length. The cats were known for being extremely agile climbers, with some accounts describing how they seemed to almost swing from tree to tree like some sort of primate rather than cat. The cats were also said to be powerful jumpers, able to leap up to 5 meters (16.5 feet) from a standing position.
These large cats came to be known by locals as the yamapikarya, which roughly translates into “the one in the mountain whose eyes shine,” as well as the dai yamaneko, or “giant mountain cat.” In addition to reports of mysterious large cats brought back by hunters before and during the early days of human habitation on the island, soldiers stationed on Iriomote Island during World War II also reported seeing the Yamapikarya on occasion, and there are even accounts of soldiers killing the beasts.
Artistic depiction of the Yamapikarya.
The Yamapikarya is still occasionally sighted into the modern day.
One such sighting occurred in the summer of 1978, when a hunter reported seeing a large cat lounging up in a tree. The eyewitness described the cat as having spots that were “oddly shaped,” and a long tail that hung down “like a vine.” After observing the cat for several minutes, the hunter reports that the cat seemed to suddenly realize it was not alone, after which it bounded down the tree and into the forest with what he said was extraordinary speed and agility. The cat reportedly did not make any sound during the encounter.