Bug Culture in Japan

I thought I do a post on creepy crawlies in celebration of Halloween.In the west, insects are almost universally reviled and looked upon with disgust and hatred. But in Japan, the situation is more complicated with many species being loved and influential in Japanese culture.

The first fact about bugs in Japan is that there are a lot of them, an estimated 100,000 species. To put that in perspective the US has 164,000 despite Japan being the same size as California. The reasons for the diversity are Japan`s humid climate, unique geology history, and latitudinal gradient. There are 28 of 30 known insect orders in Japan.

Common bugs in Japan

Japanese Giant Wasp

You are all likely familiar with at least one Japanese bug, the Japanese Giant Hornet or the Murder Hornet as it was called by media when some were found in the US. Why sensationalized in the news, they are a common sight in Japan and will leave you alone if you leave them alone. But their sting is incredibly painful and potentially fatal. According to the youtube personality, Nathaniel “Coyote” Peterson who makes videos where he is stung or bitten by insects, they have the second most painful sting in the world.

One of the reasons US officials, are worried about the Japanese Giant Hornet is they are expert bee killers and just a handful can kill tens of thousands of bees. Japanese bees have developed a defense mechanism against them but forming a ball and raising their body temperature around an invading hornet cooking it alive. But Western bees do not have this defense mechanism and are helpless against “murder hornets”.

Male Japanese Giant Hornet
By Yasunori Koide via Wikimedia Commons

Dragonflies

Dragonflies in Japan are a symbol of courage, strength, and victory particularly in battle due to their style of hunting where they would hunt their prey quickly and without hesitation. Their image was adorned on the armor and apparel of Samurai.In ancient mythology, Japan was even called the “land of the dragonflies”.

Dragonflies on a swordguard

Cicadas

For many Japanese people, cicadas are synonymous with summer. People delight in their calls and they symbolize the changing of the seasons and the fleetingness of nature. In poetry,the sounds of cicadas are written about in the same manner as falling cherry blossums or changing of leaves in fall.

Shell of a Cicada
By Rori via Wikimedia Commons

Mukade

One of my favorite tales from Japanese folklore is about a Giant Centipede or Mukade in Japanese living in the mountains and preying on humans. It was defeated with an arrow dipped in human saliva, its only weakness. Real Mukade are much smaller and less deadly than its fictional counterpart but they are still feared. They are incredibly aggressive and have a painful bite. They are especially common in old houses and the countryside. Sometimes people wake up and find that they have an extra guest in their bed.

Giant Mukade attacking a village

Silkworm 

Silkworms are the larvae of Silkmoths who are fed a diet of mulberry until it forms a cocoon. Silk is harvested from the cocoon, killing the larvae in the process. 3,000 cocoons are needed to make a pound of silk. Historically, the Silk industry in Japan was vital for the economy making up 20%–40% of total exports in 1850 and 1930. Nowadays, the adoption of synthetic material like nylon in response to WWII embargos has greatly diminished Japanese silk production.

Insects as a hobby

Fighting

Kids in Japan love getting a big net and capturing bugs. There is usually a whole section in pet stores and home improvement stores to this hobby. The worldwide phenomenon Pokemon was inspired by the creator’s childhood hobby of bug collecting. For some, the prime target are large beetles like the kabutomushi (rhinoceros beetle). Kabuto is a type of helmet worn by Samurai and mushi means bug. Once they capture one they will have them fight against another beetle. Two beatles are put on a log and the one that pushes the other off the log wins. Nowadays, you can easily purchase beatles and supplies to take care of them for those that dont “want to be the very best,like no one ever was”.

Kabutomushi
By Joi Ito from Inbamura, Japan via Wikimedia Commons

In my research, I saw that there is an even spider fighting contest called Kumo Gassen that takes place in Kajiki, Kagoshima Japan. Two Argiope spiders are put on different ends of a stick and fight each other in the middle. They can win through three ways, 1)biting 2) wrapping the opponent in a web 3) If both spiders drop down by web, the one that cuts the other line wins. There is a referee to judge and prevent the spiders from hurting each other. Most of the owners are little boys who absolutely adore their pets and have no qualms about handling them.

Watching fireflies

For the pacifists, watching fireflies in the early days of summer may be preferable to fighting arachnids or insects. Watching fireflies is a popular summer pastime by the young and old. It often can make for a romantic date. My fiancee was once asked out by a much older co-worker who invited her to go see fireflies with him(while we were dating). Of course, she said no and didn’t go. Fireflies are thought to represent the souls of those killed in battle. This is symbolism is best seen in the incredibly sad animated movie about two kids surviving in Japan during the last days of WWII called Grave of the Fireflies.

*Check out this post if you interested in places to see fireflies in Japan.

Fireflies near a river in Japan
By T.Kiya さん via Wikimedia Commons

INSECT CUISINE

Entomophagy or eating of insects is localized in mountainous regions of Japan where insects were historically a valuable source of protein such as Gifu and Nagano prefecture. Insects consumption was once widespread in Japan when food was more scarce but nowadays it is rare. But that is changing as chefs, scientists, and entrepreneurs turn to insects such as crickets because they provide more protein than other food sources and are many resources and labor-intensive. Raising insects for consumption is a more environmentally friendly alternative to large animals like cows and pigs who emit greenhouse gasses and require a massive amount of water. Here are two of the most famous traditional insect dishes.

Inago no tsukudani

Inago are rice grasshoppers. The dish is made by cooking inago in soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. It has a sweet and salty taste and a crunch to it. It is common as a bar snack.

Inago no Tsukudani
By Pqks758 via Wikimedia Commons

 Hachinoko

Hachinoko are the eggs and larvae of the Vespula flaviceps, a black and white variety of yellow jacket wasp. It is most often prepared as Tsukudani(soy sauce, mirin, and sugar). It tastes great on top of white rice.

Can and jars of Hachinoko being sold in Nagano 
By 投稿者 via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Bug Culture in Japan

  1. My “favourite” (to see, not to eat) is hornet larvae in honey. I’m convinced that the general population just see the word “hachi” and can’t make the distinction between honey bees and hornets.

    I don’t mind the inago tsukudani, except that the legs get caught between my teeth!

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