The habu is a type of viper
native to the Ryukyu Islands
: its name can be written in the kanji
above, but is often written in katakana
. Habu are not particularly aggressive, but will bite
if provoked: their venom
, and venombin
) is highly lethal, and it is said that a drop of habu venom is enough to kill a horse
Four breeds of habu exist. The gold habu (Trimeresurus flavoviridis) is generally 100-200 cm in length and has a golden skin with a black pattern. The hime habu (Ovophis okinavensis) is much smaller, only 30-80 cm, and has a brown skin with a black or white pattern. The Sakishima habu (Trimeresurus elegans) is only found in the immediate vicinity of Okinawa Island, and ranges from 50-100 cm in length with a brown and black skin. Finally, the Tokara habu (Trimeresurus tokarensis), found in the Tokara Islands, is a white or black-colored snake ranging from 60 to 100 cm in length.
Habu in Okinawa are analogous to alligators in Florida: they aren't slithering around everywhere, but they are lurking about, and when they appear in public, mass panic tends to ensue. More than half of the 150 islands of Okinawa have a habu population of some kind, and a handful of habu control specialists work in the islands to deal with problem snakes when they crop up. The main reason they don't usually terrorize residents is because they are nocturnal animals, and are loathe to the lights associated with civilization.
Dealing with a habu bite can be difficult, because the antidotes for gold and hime habu venom are completely different. Unless the breed of habu responsible is known, little can be done to help the victim.
For years, habu meat has been used as a folk medicine treatment for liver and kidney problems, including diabetes. Habu are also inserted whole into bottles of sake and allowed to ferment, and the resulting drink is said to have positive health effects as well (although many of its buyers seem to be clueless tourists who want to show their friends a snake in a bottle). In the last few years, there have even been efforts to isolate the "good" chemicals in habu venom for use in pharmaceuticals.
"Habu" is also one of several nicknames for the fastest aircraft on earth, the SR-71 Blackbird. It got this nickname after four of the aircraft were sent to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and some of the locals made the comparison between the sleek black airplane and the sleek dark snake (it's actually a very apt comparison, especially if you compare both creatures head-on). Soon, the SR-71 pilots at Kadena were wearing habu patches on their flight suits and painting little habus on the tail fins of their planes.