[From September Issue 2012]
Insects are very close to the hearts of Japanese because they are living creatures that allow people to sense the changes in seasons. For example in summer, TV programs use the noise and image of cicadas to convey the heat of the summer sun. Travel agencies offer tours to go and see fireflies, or opportunities to take part in contests to photograph fireflies. In autumn, many people listen to the autumnal cries of the insects and go into raptures over its beauty or feel a surge of sadness because they sense that winter is around the corner.
Insects are also popular models for cartoon characters. Photos of insects are printed on stationary designed for children, and adorable looking insects sing songs on television programs for kids. Insects are not only for children. Dragonflies and butterflies are used in traditional patterns for kimono and furoshiki (cloth used for wrapping), and some kamon (family crests) use insects as a motif.
Why are Japanese people so fond of insects? This is because children living in Japan have many opportunities to interact with insects when they are young. Catching and taking care of insects is thought to be a normal form of play for children. Many adults, especially women, are not very fond of insects, so during an event featuring insects, you can see ecstatic children besides horrified mothers.
Facilities related to insects have been built in tourist resorts. Typically specimens of foreign and unusual insects are on display at these facilities. Insects are also sold as pets and visitors are allowed to play with insects. Some facilities are run by insect lovers, and others are set up in amusement parks to attract families.
Some insect facilities are established by municipal governments. In rural areas, kasoka (depopulation) is a major problem, so these local governments are active in machi-okoshi (projects to economically develop the area). A few local authorities make the best of the bounty of their natural environment by using bell crickets, fireflies and giant purple butterflies called oomurasaki, to revitalize their towns.
“Kabutomushi Shizen Oukoku: Kodomo-no Kuni Mushi Mushi Land” located in Tamura City, Fukushima Prefecture is an example of this kind of machi-okoshi project. This area is a farming district, and its soft soil is the perfect environment for rhinoceros beetles to lay their eggs. This is a nuisance to local farmers, but even so, there were many people in Tokyo who wanted to see these larvae. And so with the idea in mind that the rhinoceros beetle could be the key to reviving the town, Mushi Mushi Land was established. Not only can visitors stay overnight and play on giant playground equipment, they can also interact with plenty of rhinoceros beetles in their natural environment.
“At the end of March each year, we purchase a hundred thousand rhinoceros beetle larvae from the local farms,” says the Manager of Tamura City Tokiwa Public Corporation, YOSHIDA Yoshinori. “Then we take each larva, check for infections and remove tiny parasites by hand. Once they are grown, we gather the beetles and let them roam free in the park grounds or sell them to visitors.”
“In a single night we may have upwards of 1,000 grubs hatching into beetles, and since rhinoceros beetles only live for around two weeks, it is a very demanding job to take care of them so that they can live as long as possible,” says Yoshida. “Children who love insects will watch them for hours, so we’re not too popular with the mothers,” he laughs.
“Breeding rhinoceros beetles teaches children that some larva will not hatch into beetles, no matter how much effort they put into it. And so through the experience of the death of the insect they learn about life spans,” Yoshida says. “We also teach the children that, thanks to the bounty of nature rhinoceros beetles can thrive and that we shouldn’t spoil such an environment. We are sometimes asked to visit elementary schools to teach lessons too.”
People don’t only breed insects in order to enjoy them as pets. There is also a type of competition called kabutomushi sumo (rhinoceros beetle wrestling). Using the beetle’s natural instinct to fight for food or a female mate, beetle owners raise their beetles to fight against an opponent’s beetle to see which is stronger. In the summer this kind of competition is held all over Japan. There is also stag beetle sumo and sumo that pits beetles of different breeds against each other; enthusiasts will stop at nothing to raise the strongest beetles.
Though strictly speaking, they are not insects, there is also a competition in which spiders fight each other. In Kajiki Town, Kagoshima Prefecture, there is an event called “Kumo Gassen” (Spider Battle) which is said to be a tradition that started over 400 years ago, and has been designated as an intangible national cultural asset. The town’s young and old gather together to battle their prized spiders against each other – which have been raised by feeding them shouchuu (an alcoholic beverage) and the like.
In this way, raising insects is a common hobby in Japan. Popular insects, such as rhinoceros beetles, stag beetles, and bell crickets, can even be purchased at supermarkets. There are a wide variety of products for insect rearing. Jellies to feed insects with are as colorful as sweets eaten by humans and come in a variety of flavors like melon and grape. To maintain the health of your insect, sterilized twigs and tick brushes are sold.
“I think for Japanese, breeding insects can be equated with growing flowers,” says TSUBOUCHI Toshiharu, representative of Dorcus Dake a shop devoted to stag and rhinoceros beetles. “Just as the seedlings of a flower grows from a seed and the flower blooms, insects begin as a small egg that grows into a larva, pupa and finally into an adult. This process can be enjoyed.”
Raising insects used to be thought of as child’s play, but about 20 years ago, the numbers of adults raising insects began to increase. As a result, rare and foreign insects are traded for high figures that reach tens or hundreds of thousands of yen, and high quality feed has also been developed. There are even insect breeders who aim to breed bigger or more beautifully colored or shaped insects by obsessing over blood lines and country of origin.
“Since it’s not only professionals, but also the general public who’ve stared to rear insects, guidelines for breeding techniques have been established and with this the development of innovative products has been continuing. Once one person has made their mark, it sets the bar higher for others and this means that Japanese breeding techniques have reached a very high standard. Insects that became rare in their country of origin are sometimes being carefully bred in great numbers here in Japan. So we are also contributing to the preservation of insects,” says Tsubouchi.
In the classic novel “Genji Monogatari” (The Tale of Genji) which was written approximately 1,000 years ago, characters are portrayed raising insects in order to enjoy their singing. Also, in haiku, the names of insects are included to reflect the seasons. Japanese have been fond of insects for a very long time.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo