Photo/IllutrationA signboard warns about bears in the Azuma Sports Park in Fukushima. (Keiji Iijima)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

FUKUSHIMA--Reported bear sightings have increased around a Tokyo Olympic venue for baseball and softball, causing concerns among officials that fans from overseas could run afoul of the wild animals.

Staff at the management office for the Azuma Sports Park, home to the Fukushima Prefecture-run Azuma Stadium, patrol the grounds each morning and evening by car whenever bear sightings are reported. When traces of bears are found in vegetation along roads, the workers set off firecrackers.

“Bears will stay away because they are surprised by noise and do not like to sniff smoke and gunpowder,” said Masato Takahashi, 40, an official of the office’s facility management division.

The Azuma Sports Park, with a size equivalent to 21 Tokyo Domes, is located 10 kilometers southwest of central Fukushima city near a mountain and surrounded by rice paddies and thickets.

According to the Fukushima prefectural government, 48 bear sightings were reported around the park over three years through last fiscal year. Bears have already been detected on at least five occasions this fiscal year, which started in April.

In August three years ago, a bear scratched the exterior wall and broke a shoji sliding door at a theater in the park, which is designated by the central government as an important cultural property.

Officials began renting out bells to visitors to warn bears of the human presence. They also started using a U.S.-made bear-repellent spray.

Takahashi said he saw a 1-meter-tall Asiatic black bear sticking its head out of a bush along a river near the park in May.

“I was surprised because after our eyes met, the bear suddenly stopped moving and ran down the river at an unbelievable speed,” he said.

According to Fukushima prefectural police, 514 bear sightings were reported last year in the prefecture, the most since records began in 2012. The number of bear sightings has remained almost at the same pace this year.

In May, a bear broke the chin of a man traveling in the village of Kita-Shiobara. An American tourist in June was injured after being bitten by a bear in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu.

At Azuma Stadium, the first Olympic softball game will be held on July 22, 2020, two days before the Opening Ceremony of the Games. Seven baseball and softball games are scheduled at the stadium over three days.

A Fukushima prefectural government official said the venue will be safe.

“Bears do not appear where there are many people around,” the official said. “Fences will also be installed around the stadium.”

However, Kazuhiko Maita, 71, chairman of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, said further countermeasures should be taken in light of the many visitors expected at pre-Olympic events and during the Games.

“Local residents may be accustomed to seeing bears, but people from countries with few bears who know next to nothing about the animals could encounter them while taking strolls in unexpected areas,” Maita said. “Many more steps, such as erecting signboards and distributing pamphlets, should be taken to make such people understand that bears live nearby and take precautions.”