Habu Snakes of Okinawa

By David Higgins

During and after the Battle of Okinawa many American GIs got a chance to encounter habu up close and personal.

The Japanese word ‘Habu’ refers to a particular type of snake that inhabits the Ryukyu Islands. These snakes are also known as tree vipers or pit vipers. There are three species of Habus found on Okinawa. Two of these species have been introduced and one is native to the island. They are all venomous snakes that feed mainly on rodents and other small mammals.

Nanto Shuzo Co. produces habu sake commercially.

Habu snakes are large, venomous and can be aggressive when provoked, but on the island of Okinawa these dangerous creatures are not always regarded as being something to avoid. It is the custom in Okinawa to catch these snakes and use their bodies to make a potent drink known as Habu sake.

Native Okinawa Habu snakes are of a pale greenish yellow color and are marked with a wavy pattern of dark green patches with yellow edges. The underside is much plainer and almost white.

A Habu snake can grow up to eight feet long, although most of them don’t reach that size. The introduced species are only three or four feet in length and are more gray-brown in appearance than the native Okinawa Habu.

On Okinawa Island it is important to know what to do in case you get bitten by one of these aggressive snakes. Habu venom is not always lethal but it is hemotoxic, which means it can do a lot of harm to blood cells while poisoning the blood.

Victims of a Habu snakebite may die or can suffer permanent disability if they do not get immediate medical attention. The thing you should never do is to apply a tight binding around the bite. This will only allow the venom to have a worse affect in that area.

Even a baby habu is a habu and not something to play with.

The correct action to take when a Habu snake bites someone is to clean up the area around the bite in order to prevent infection within the bloodstream. The affected part of the body will need to be kept immobile until a medical professional can treat the victim.

Statistics show that the population of Okinawa is known to have some of the longest-living inhabitants in the world. The presence of Habu snakes is obviously not a huge threat to all Okinawans, and the availability of effective medical treatment means that a bite does not have to be debilitating or result in death.

Habu snakes are more active in the summer months and can often be seen basking on rocky ledges. They can also be found in caves. Most of the snakes inhabit forested areas, but they will move out into farmland and cross fields that are close to fresh water. Habu snakes also appear in and around human settlements, where they are known to hide in old tombs and inside traditional walls made of limestone rocks.

Some Okinawans who know where Habu snakes are found collect large numbers of them and use their bodies to make Habu sake. This strong liquor is often drunk from bottles containing the remains of a Habu snake itself. It is also believed to have medicinal qualities.

The toxicity of Habu snake venom is neutralized by alcohol during the process of preparing habu sake. A jar or a bottle of Habu sake may contain a complete snake that has been submerged in alcohol and may have a strong smell, but the drink has a less obnoxious smell when the snake’s guts are removed before it is submerged.

If it is true that Habu sake has a positive affect on health, then it is also possible that its consumption has contributed to the longevity of the Okinawan population. The potent drink is also supposed to increase virility, having a similar effect to taking Viagra, a belief probably having its roots in the fact that habus take for hours when they mate.

Okinawan Habu snakes are valued as much as they are feared. They should be avoided in the wild and need to be deterred from human habitation, but with immediate medical treatment, a bite from a Habu snake will not kill or do any permanent damage.

  • SunshineSunshineSunshine

    CHEMTRAILS.

  • Bamnn Manny

    I’ve had snakeju, a Korean version of this….YUCKY!!! Smelled like old baby diapers, gym socks and death….tasted worse. BUT, I kept it down, and didn’t have to pay!

  • Gail

    When I was a kid I lived in Okinawa. My dad was in USAF at Kadena and at the annual carnival we had they had the habu/mongoose fight. They had a plexiglass tank with bleachers around it and put both animals inside. Usually the mongoose would win. It would rip out their fangs and poke out the snakes eyes. This was back in the 60’s.

    • LeeCMH

      ’65 thru ’67 I was there at Kadena Karnival. One year I filled and sold balloons for my father’s squadron.

      On my first Habu/Mongoose fight, the Okinawan guy who brought around the snake for all to view was bitten and died a week after I was there. My mother forbade me from going to another (but I did).

      I lived on Moore Ave. not far from Kadena Elementary.

      • Gail

        My dad actually helped put the Kadena carnival together, he got lots of donations like hotdogs soda. One of the rides was a square cage with bench seats and a crane would spin you around. Nowadays that ride would have been banned too dangerous! Did you go to the school when Fess Parker came to visit?

        • LeeCMH

          Thanks for the reply. We may have actually been the same classes at Kadena Elementary.

          I really enjoyed Kadena Karnival. The best part was the make-shift way it was produced. For example, my favorite ride, I called the flying saucer. It was like a cage, but in the shape of a saucer and swung from a crane. What fun. Yes, that would not be certified for use

          Yes, I was there when Daniel Boone visited Kadena Elementary. I shook his hand. My teachers were Mr. Palmer (B9), Ms Mitchell (C5), Ms Thorson (D12???).

          My mother even commissioned a painting of me (from a picture) with Blackie the photographer, but she didn’t like it and didn’t ultimately purchase it. It stayed up at the little kiosk at the BX for months and months. I was wearing a red turtleneck.

          Great memories. The Internet is a great way for us military brats to reconnect.

          • Gail

            Wow what a small world! I think you are probably a little older than me. I don’t know any of your teachers. Mine were Miss Meadows and Mrs.Nadler. In Mrs Nadler’s class we were the ones that went around singing everywhere. We did the Christmas caroling and we even had a kid that played a little drum for the drummer.boy song. Does that sound familiar I really thought there was a Santa Claus, hearing the radar spotted Santa and his sleigh. And my dad knew the guy who played Santa, well he already knew my name and what I wanted. And on Christmas my parents didn’t wrap gifts, they just scattered them in the living room like Santa just dropped them off. They had me fooled. My dad was the security for the base Sgt Tallman. I remember seeing B52s all camouflaged lined up on the flight line loaded with bombs were it looked like their wings sagged ready to go to Vietnam. Also my dad was in charge of the K9 dogs and their handlers.
            ..

          • LeeCMH

            I don’t remember the carolers, but oh do I remember the radar spotting Santa and the excitement and the huge toy store they had open from October through December. If was a big warehouse, stuffed with toys fresh off the boat.

            We lived over in Kadena Circle for the first of our three years, then on base. Our house was a duplex right beside the girl scout hut. A small wooded hill was behind the house. I still recall the address, 2559A Moore Avenue.

            We where there starting summer of 65, leaving in summer 68. My years were 4th, 5th and 6th. From an education perspective, Kadena Elementary was one of the better schools I went to — as you probably know from your own experience — many schools.

            My father was a flight engineer, but on Okinawa he worked in a building on the flight line, fairly close to base ops. — Sgt Pierce.

            The only time I saw lots of B52s was when typhoons were threatening Guam, where the main B52 squadrons were stationed for Vietnam. Funny, when the same typhoons made there way up to Okinawa, all the planes left for Guam. The KC135 tanker squadrons were stationed on Okinawa. Nearly everyday all the tankers would leave on their refueling runs to rendezvous with the B52s outta Guam.

            Did you get any typhoons? Luckily we lived off and on base in “permanent” homes, i.e. steel reinforced concrete foundation, walls, and roof, so we did not have to leave our houses. AFRTS went on a 24 hour schedule, even television — well, at least until we lost electricity. We turned to our transistor radios, candles, and sterno. After one typhoon, we found a full palm tree in the front yard (K-Circle).

            I lifted this picture of a house nearly identical to the house we lived in Kadena Circle. I see this house had an air conditioner. Those things were nearly useless in those hot boxes.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c80e5af46bd04175fa666394537978cd147c9c9a881bf9e21d4a4f4d3903bdeb.jpg

          • Gail

            We did have some typhoons. I remember my dad nailing wood to the windows. It was more fun being all safe and cozy inside.I guess I never been in a bad one. When we went to Japan on a ship there was a typhoon that passed us or we passed it, but it was not severe. We went to Japan 2 times via ship because my mom is Japanese and we went to go visit. Back then as you know Okinawa wasn’t considered as Japan as it is now. I was actually born in Japan at Misawa AFB. I.had to get an American citizenship. My mom was even bombed by the Americans when she was a little girl. The fire bombs. She was born in Osaka, but they evacuated and ended up in Beppu which is a town where they are famous for their hot springs. We even went to a public bath house.the water is heated from the geothermal activity. It’s weird taking a bath with the neighborhood. It is separated by a wall men and women but there is a opening were you can see each other! I’d rather do it the American way We lived on Okinawa.from 1964 to 1967 then we lived at Mather AFB Sacramento CA in 1968 then we moved to Mountain Home AFB in Idaho. Then my dad retired from the USAF because he had a heart attack and became a mailman in Stockton,CA where we ended up. My dad was in the Army for 10 years and the Air Force for 14 yrs all together 24 yrs. He retired as a Master Seagent. And he retired from the USPS after 20 yrs.The reason my dad went into the AF after the Army is because he met my mom and he had to reenlist to get back to Japan. They married almost for 50 yrs until he died in 2003. When we lived on base in capart housing there were these big pipes in the ground my brother and I used to crawl through them off base under the road. Not safe, never encountered any habu. Thank God. Big cockroaches and big centipedes though!

          • LeeCMH

            Oh, yes. I my memories of typhoons was “fun time.” No electricity, water being forcibly blown through the window and door frames, going outside as soon as possible to view what happened.

            From a 4h grader’s point-of-view, fun.

            We lived on Okinawa another time earlier than this discussion. We were in Naha for two years and lived in a Quonset hut. Since Quonset huts weren’t permanent, we had to move in with another family for the duration of the storm. My mother told a story of finding little two three-year olds, including me, playing with our toy sailboats on the nice lake of a kitchen floor.

            We lived a short period at Tachikowa AFB before going to Naha.

            I don’t have any memories of Tachi and only a few isolated memories from Naha. Interestingly, I remember my final words leaving our Quonset, tearfully, “goodbye benjo ditch.” Well, I was four years old at the time. Interestingly, at that point, I had spent three of my four years in Japan and Okinawa.

            Regarding the 60s stay, we did a vacation in Japan. We did space-available flying on a C130. I had fun sitting in the cargo bay. We flew up to Tachi. Tokyo was fantastic. I’ve lived a “technology geek” life, so Tokyo as nearly Disneyland for me. Tokyo Tower was a must. We also visited the Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Kōtoku-in (okay, I looked that up), but I do remember the visit well. Beautiful temple and surrounds, and the little dragon in the statue head after entering from behind. And the hilarious time trying to tell the cab driver in Tokyo we needed to go to Tokyo Station. I even attempted to draw a picture of a train. Suddenly, the driver said, “Tokyo Station.” We nodded and off we went preparing ourselves to be “packed” into the train back to Tachi.

            Over the years I’ve had different attitudes about my stay on Okinawa. Ultimately, I’ve grown to appreciate the experience as. Living out of my home country, albeit on American military bases, gave me a much broader view of the world and people who struggle in it. I am an American, but I have an ability few of my peers have — to see world events from the points of view of the local people. I get perturbed when I hear folks talk about “American Exceptionalism.” I am proud I am an American, but I also respect and enjoy other people’s pride in their lives and countries. Your experience is far broader as you have family in two countries. In the family that lived next to us on Okinawa (beside the girl scout hut), the wife was Japanese. She became friends with my mother.

            The woman’s Japanese mother lived with her on Okinawa. She explained to my mother that she has to watch her mother off base as she did not have a good opinion of Okinawans. My understanding was it seems Japanese up in the main island group had a bit of prejudice toward Okinawan and could be rude. That example helped me understand different cultures and appreciate the nuance within.

            Oh, the bath houses. I have never been to a Japanese bath house, but would love to just for the experience. I did not see any women using them. When we lived off-base (K-Circle), I recall seeing men in long robes carrying bath towels walking down the street in the early evening just prior to sunset. What are they doing? Oh, bathing is a community affair, at least for men. I understand the neighborhood skuttlebutt was exchanged during long drawn-out bathing sessions.

            A sugar freighter hit a reef off Naha and stayed on that reef until I left. During one storm, the freighter broke in two. I think that happened in ’65 or ’66.

            Yes the giant roaches and centipedes. Scary creatures. There were also plenty of gecko crawling near light bulbs at night hoping to catch a bug.

            I recall three items I missed while on the island, potato chips, whole milk, and soda. For soda on Okinawa, we could get a fountain drink at the movie or diner, but at home we had Bireley’s flavored syrup we mixed with water. Years later, in Fayetteville a couple Air Force brats including myself were watching a Godzilla movie. Godzilla approached and tore down a Bireley’s billboard. We screamed in laughter only we could understand.

            Don’t eat any food from a place not DoD approved with the sign up front. Thinking of restaurants, did you do Lima Restaurant in Kosa? It was there I first had tacos and enchiladas. Mexican is some of my favorite food (well TexMex). My love for Mexican food started in Kosa.

            While we forbidden from consuming food from non-approved sources, I stole pennies from the couch, etc. and got me little Popsicles, or soy snacks from the local market anyway.

            Catching-up after Okinawa:
            Wright-Patterson, Dayton, Ohio
            Year in small town while my father was in Viet Nam
            Pope, Fayetteville, North Carolina

            At Pope, my father got orders to go to Saudi Arabia. He retired instead – after 23 years in service. He went on to work for a tire manufacturer for another 20.

            Both my parents are now deceased.

            Since then, I lived in several cities on my own. Perhaps I couldn’t get the travel-lust out of my system. Anyhow, I am now in Columbus Ohio (which I promised never to return after the brutal cold winter back in ’68-’69 Dayton especially after living three years on Okinawa. I’ve been in Columbus for, hold your seat, 23 years. I can’t imagine having lived in one place for such an eternity. I guess I am getting old and tired, but I was Born Under a Wand’rin Star (Paint Your Wagon), set not far from your current town.

            I am compelled to mention Habu again as this is the topic of the article we are commenting on. I recall the power going out several times because Habu (being vipers) climbing utility poles and grounding themselves as they attempt to crawl from the pole onto the line. The article points out Habu can craw up trees. They can even strike from the trees. I am not aware of a North American snake that can climb trees. We typically look down for snakes, not up in the trees too.

            On closing. The bathhouse symbol: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/47648402a79626099adc74bf53407fb2749eae7a81399ca66a67676b3d28b38f.jpg

    • Hippiefreak

      Looks like a mini-reunion of military brats here! That’s great! We lived in Machinato-Naha, specfically the Miyagi-Urasoe area near Yafuso Street, then moved to 704 Morgan Manor (now called Furugen) north of Kadena Circle. This was 1963-1966 and I was in 2nd thru 4th grades. We did a second stint 1968-1970 and lived in New Oroku, right outside of Naha AFB Gate #2, now called the Tabaru area. I was in 7th and 8th grades.

      1963-64 Tyler Elementary
      1964-65 Naha-Adams Elementary
      1965-66 Kadena Elementary
      1968-70 Port Wheel Junior High

      I recall the Kadena Karnival and the habu-mongoose fights and plenty of other memories. I have many mementos. I went back and visited in 2011 and took many pictures of places we lived. I brought with me old pictures of Okinawa from the 50’s-70s that I took from the web and I photographed the same places in 2011 to make a Then and Now comparison.