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Trainer uses monkeys to entertain, interact with elderly

An elderly woman smiles as the monkey "Kurama" cuddles with her, at the Michinoeki Shimotsuke rest area in Shimotsuke, Tochigi Prefecture. (Mainichi)

SHIMOTSUKE, Tochigi -- A trainer is using his monkeys here to entertain the elderly, having lovingly raised the monkeys to be unaggressive toward humans.

    "The expressions and gestures of monkeys, who are close to humans, greatly move our hearts. Monkeys have a unique ability to soothe us," says the trainer, Toshimi Manaka, 39, who is head of Monkey Entertainment based in Mooka, Tochigi Prefecture.

    The monkeys are three male Japanese macaques. Two of them, named "Naruto" and "Luigi," are 11 years old, and the other, named "Kurama," is 2 years old. In November last year, the three macaques could be seen entertaining spectators at the Michinoeki Shimotsuke rest area here, showing off their mid-air flips and handstands. Afterwards, people were allowed to hold the monkeys and take pictures with them. An elderly woman in a wheelchair -- who had been brought for a visit by her caretakers -- smiled as she held Kurama on her lap and the monkey leaned against her.

    Toshimi Manaka is the second son of Toshio Manaka, who set up the popular "Nikko Saru Gundan" (Nikko monkey troupe). At age 23, Toshimi began to follow in his father's footsteps, but for a time he was unsure of his path. He didn't feel comfortable with his father's harsh training techniques, so he studied another way of training.

    After his daughter was born 13 years ago, Toshimi began to think of monkey training differently. Scolding for bad behavior, complimenting for desirable behavior, he came to feel that "there is no difference between (monkey) training and child-raising."

    Japanese macaques are said to normally be aggressive and not friendly with all people they meet. The Act on Welfare and Management of Animals designates them within a group of animals that may harm humans. After his careful training, however, Toshimi believes his three monkeys would never attack people.

    Toshimi brought the monkeys to perform for and entertain victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake multiple times, and after seeing how people were cheered up by them, he began focusing in 2013 on using the monkeys for therapy for the elderly.

    He is careful to manage the monkeys from a hygiene perspective as well, putting them in diapers and regularly checking their waste for signs of health problems. The monkeys have been performing at more and more locations, such as nursing homes for the elderly both in and out of Tochigi Prefecture.

    Toshimi says he cannot forget one elderly couple that happened to see the monkeys' performance. Their fields had been suffering damage from monkeys, and they despised them. When they saw the performance, however, Toshimi says the couple shed tears seeing how hard the monkeys were working to entertain their audience.

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