Insectopedia

Yearnings

 

 

 

 

 

  • CJ and I were in Japan to find out about the two-decade-old craze for breeding, raising, and keeping stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles. We’d prepared in the usual way: by spending too much time googling Japanese insect sites, and by talking to friends and reading the books and articles they recommended. By the time we met up in Tokyo, we knew that as well as generating widespread excitement, these big, shiny beetles so reminiscent of the chunky Japanese robot toys that swept the U.S. in the mid-1980s, were also creating considerable anxiety among ecologists, conservationists, and in Japan’s venerable insect-collecting community.

     

    But what we hadn’t realized was the extent to which this beetle boom was part of a much larger phenomenon. In our three weeks traveling in Tokyo and the Kansai region around Osaka, we were both open-mouthed at the abundance and diversity of human-insect life.

     

    Because insects were everywhere! It was insect culture, something I’d never imagined. Insects had infiltrated a vast swathe of everyday life. CJ and I pored over super-glossy hobby magazines with their beetle glamour spreads, spoof advice columns, and colorful accounts of exotic collecting expeditions. We studied pocket-sized exhibitions and read xeroxed newsletters from suburban insect-lovers’ clubs. We visited the geek-tech-culture otaku stalls in Akihabara, Tokyo’s Electric City, and found pricey plastic beetles on sale alongside meido (maid) and Lolita fetish figurines. We ducked under low-hanging subway car posters for MushiKing, Sega’s warring-beetle trading-card/videogame phenomenon, and we watched children battling one another with controlled intensity at the MushiKing consoles in city center department stores. We explored some of the scores of insectaria throughout the country and gaped at the glass-and-steel grandeur of the butterfly houses, monuments of the 1990s' bubble economy but also testament to a popular passion. We sat in smoke-filled coffee-shops and on air-conditioned bullet trains reading the insect-themed serials in the biweekly mass-circulation manga anthologies. We YouTubed Kuwagata Tsumami, a cartoon for young children about the super-cute mixed-species daughter of a kuwagata father and a human mother (don’t ask!). We visited the country’s oldest entomological store, Shiga Konchu Fukyū-sha in Shibuya, Tokyo, which sells professional collecting equipment of its own design—collapsible butterfly nets, handcrafted wooden specimen boxes—of a quality to rival any in the world.

     

    Of course, we took any opportunity we could to talk to people in the neighborhood insect pet stores packed to the rafters with live beetles in perspex boxes and with the numerous products marketed for their care (dry food, supplements, mattresses, medicinals, etc.) often in cute kawaii packaging depicting funny little bugs with big, emotion-filled eyes acting out in funny little poses. And we also saw the much sadder boxes in department stores crammed with too many too-agitated big beetles and skinny suzumushi bell crickets all on sale at knock-down prices. One late night we stumbled upon a display of live beetles in a glass box in the lobby of a suburban train station, a sight made surreal by the silence of the hour, the insistent sound of the animals’ scratching, and the realization that they, we, and the battering moths were the only living beings on hand … should we liberate them?

     

    Knowing our interests, everyone was keen to tell us about Japanese insect love. Look around you! Where else are fireflies, dragonflies, crickets, and beetles so esteemed? Did you know that the ancient name for Japan, Akitsu-shima, means Dragonfly Island? Have you heard Aka Tombo, the Red Dragonfly song? Did you know that in the Edo period, the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, people would visit certain special places just to bask in the songs of their crickets or the lights of their fireflies? Did you read the classical literature? The 8th-century Man’yōshū has seven poems about singing insects. Crickets are a symbol of autumn. Their songs are inseparable from the melancholy of life’s transience. Cicadas are a sound of summer. Do you know haiku? Bashō wrote: "The silence / The voice of the cicadas / penetrates the rocks." Do you know Kawabata Yasunari’s beautiful story of the grasshopper and the bell-cricket? It’s just a wisp of memory held together by two tiny insects. Please go to Nara! You must visit the Tamamushi-no-zushi shrine in the ancient Hōryūji temple. It was constructed in the sixth century from nine thousand scarab beetle carapaces!

     

    These last suggestions came from Sugiura Tetsuya, an erudite and energetic docent volunteering at the Kashihara Insectarium not far from Nara and its many ancient temples. In his younger days, Sugiura told us, he collected butterflies in Nepal and Brazil. Recently, he had donated his specimens to the insectarium in which he worked, where, as he pointed out, he was able to see them whenever he wished.

     

    It turned out it was Sugiura Tetsuya himself who had suggested the insect museum and butterfly house to the mayor of Kashihara when the initial plan for an aquarium turned out too expensive. He was kind enough to spend the entire afternoon explaining the museum’s extensive collection to us and later sent a package to me in New York with a selection of articles on many ancient items of interest.

     

    In the final room of the museum, after his exhaustive tour, Sugiura-san stopped at a case documenting the insect cuisine of Thailand and told us how Japanese visitors, schoolchildren especially, are disgusted by this display and how they exclaim over the primitive habits of the Thais. I remember quite clearly, he continued with no change of expression, how I used to go into the mountains with my classmates after the war to collect locusts which we would bring back to school and boil with shōyu. We also ate boiled silkworm larvae in those days, he said, and only stopped when the silk industry declined in the 1960s and the supplies of insects dried up. It was hard-times food but it was good food. It was part of our cuisine but you would never know that now. It was the culture of the popular classes, he said, a culture rarely recorded and always forgotten….

     

     

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