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Hour of the Habu

By: Kotoko Chinen

Date Posted: 1999-11-10

The staff and students of Sesoko Elementary and Junior High School, located in the northern part of Okinawa, will always remember the morning of October 20th for the terrifying manner it began.

Around 7:15 that morning, three students rushed into the teachers' room in flurry. Hifumi Tanaka, the Headmistress of this small school with a total of 120 elementary and junior high school students, had just came back to the teachers' room after her morning chores.

"Ms. Tanaka! We just saw a big “Habu” by the water fountain!" the students shouted. They were two brothers in 4th and 5th grade, and another 4th grader friend. They were screaming as they burst into Ms. Tanaka’s room.

In a state of half panic, MS. Tanaka followed her students to locate the uninvited visitor. "I was so surprised and shocked to hear the news at first. But, I thought I had to do something quickly because more students started arriving in the school," Tanaka told Japan Update, her voice still betraying some excitement.

According to the schoolmistress, the “Habu” – a very dangerous and poisonous snake species that still prevails in several parts of Okinawa – was first found crawling on the cement floor near a bubbler on the first floor just out of the school building. While the students went to the teachers' room to call for rescue, the dangerous trespasser fled into the main entrance of the school building. When Tanaka and her students got there, the five feet, four inches-long intruder was taking the offensive pose in the students’ shoe box installed at the entrance. The snake’s long, thick body was coiled and its triangular-shaped head was facing them, ready to strike. Ms. Tanaka remembered that some local Habu experts once told her never to make any movements when a poisonous snake is in that pose, because it would take it as a signal of attack. It could then spring at the person in self-defense.

Instead of acting all alone, she went back to her office to call for a Habu catcher in the neighborhood. In the meantime, the unusually large snake, which probably was ready for hibernation during winter, climbed the stairs nimbly and escaped to the second floor. The battle between the swift serpent and Sesoko School finally ended about 40 minutes after the first appearance of the Habu in the schoolyard. A local Habu expert exterminated the snake as soon as he received the 911 call from Tanaka.

"There was quite an uproar over one big fat Habu at school that morning,” Ms. Tanaka said. A few policemen, the chairperson of our PTA, and five officials from the Board of Education, came to school when they heard the news. Fortunately, there was someone who knows how to deal with Habu in the neighborhood, and no one got hurt this time. But, we gave a special lecture on Habu to all the students after the incident."

A Habu spray known as "Habu Knock" is able to kill snakes in 15 minutes with one blow. It is now constantly available at school following the frightful occurrence.

Sesoko Elementary and Junior High School was not the only stage for traumatic Habu incidents. About one month ago, a Habu injury was registered at Kamimotobu Junior High School in Motobu Town as well. The incident occurred around 6:30 p.m. on September 29th. A second grader tried to take a shortcut from the back of the school field to his house. When he placed his left hand on the wall, he felt something entangling his hand, and then he felt something like a bee sting. In the darkness, he saw an 11-inch-long baby Habu on the wall. Shortly after, waves of the sharp pain attacked his bitten hand. The boy's father sucked the poison out from the wounded hand as a first aid measure at home, then called the Motobu fire department and took his son there. From the fire department, the student was transferred to the Prefectural hospital, where he was hospitalized for three days.

The horizontal line where Kamimotobu Junior High school and Kamimotobu Elementary School stand is called the “Path of Snake", and Habus are often seen in the area at this time of the year.

Because of its natural weakness with direct rays of the sun, and because it prefers cool temperatures, this is the season of Habu. Habu in Ryukyu Islands do not hibernate even during winter time, as many people believed they do, because of the subtropical climate. They instead become active at this time of the year and injuries caused by Habu snakes increase.

According to the statistics provided by Nago Health Center, 140 injuries by Habu were reported last year alone; September (21 cases) was the most dangerous month, October (19 cases) and May (14 cases) followed. 13 injuries were reported in November. So, caution is needed continuously. The snake attacks were reported throughout the island, from the northern part to southern part of Okinawa.

If anyone comes across a snake, keep a distance (at least 1.5 meter) from it and let other people know about it. If there is one Habu, there might be a few others around. So, be very careful. If a Habu snake bites anyone, the first thing to do is find out which breed of Habu did it. The antidote for the poison of Kin Habu can only be made from the poison of Kin Habu and Hime Habu's serum therapy does not work for any injuries caused by Kin Habu.

There are over 150 inhabited and uninhabited islands in Okinawa, and it is said that Habu reptiles live in approximately 70 of the islands, including over 40 inhabited islands. On the main island of Okinawa, there are three kinds of Habu snakes: Kin Habu, Hime Habu and Sakishima Habu. However, only Kin and Hime Habu currently inhabit the main island. According to one Habu specialist, the easiest way to distinguish one from another is by their length. Hime Habu is shorter than Kin Habu.

Because of its strong toxicity, it is said that a drop of Habu poison can kill a horse. Habu snakes are detested, yet they can also be a source of good medicine. It is said that the flesh of Habu is good for diabetes and other liver and kidney related diseases. People say that Habu oil has immediate positive effects on external wounds.

As the proverb says, poison can be turned into medicine. The yellow, poisonous drops of Habu are not an exception. At the university level, studies on the advantages of Habu poison began about three years ago. A local news paper reported that an ingredient which can help in the prevention of thrombus is found in Habu poison, and a preventive drug made from Habu poison for thrombus will be available in the future.

Habu powder and oil have already been on the market for years. As our Habu specialist said, "We received many ‘thank yous’ from our customers who claim that their health conditions have increased since they started taking the Habu powder. The effectiveness of Habu oil is obvious. As Okinawans say, Habu can be "Nuchigusui", or medicine for life."

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