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Petting Beetles: The Strange Love of Japanese People for Insects

You may be one of the numerous people who have spent long lockdown hours playing the Nintendo video game hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons. If so, the hobby of insect collecting, and the sound of cicadas have become familiar to you. But did you know this is directly inspired by the Japanese’s peculiar relationship with insects? In this article, I’ll introduce the different ways the Japanese appreciate co-existing with the little critters.

Enjoying the Seasonal Sounds of the Insects

Japanese cicada on a tree
Japanese cicada (photo credit: Pakutaso)

Culturally, Japanese people consider insect noises as “soothing” or “comfortable.” According to Tadanobu Tsunoda, a doctor of medicine at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, while Western people recognize the sound that insects make as “noise, in their right brain, Japanese people recognize it as a ‘voice’ in their left brain, where language is processed.”
This difference is apparently derived from language.

If you visit Japan during the summer, you will hear the very loud song of the Japanese cicadas everywhere. For Japanese people, this sound is a pleasing symbol for summer, even though they call it the ”cicada drizzle,” meaning that when the cicadas cry all together, it sounds like falling rain. When the cicadas’ voices become fainter, you know that the end of summer is near.

Another bug Japanese people like to listen to: the bell cricket.
It’s an autumn insect, and for Japanese people, its clear chirping voice gives a very refreshing feeling. Since ancient times, there has been a culture of catching bell crickets and keeping them in insect cages to enjoy their tones every evening. They are still available for sale at pet stores throughout Japan!

Petting Beetles and Making Them Fight

A Miyama stag beetle on a tree
A Miyama stag beetle (photo credit: Pakutaso

During the summer time, more insects begin to appear. The three most famous bugs of the Japanese summer are crickets, beetles, and stag beetles. For typical Japanese summer holiday fun, boys go into the bush to catch crickets and beetles to bring them home as pets. Then, they sometimes organize fights between their beetles to see which one is stronger. (Mothers often hope that these bugs will not become permanent residents in their houses.)

Fun fact: This cultural aspect is also one of the main influences for the creation of the famous Pokémon video games. Satoshi Tajiri (Pokémon’s executive director) was inspired by his own childhood memories of collecting insects.

Gotta catch ’em all!

On Internet auction sites, some rare beetles and stag beetles are priced from about 800 dollars to sometimes 2.5 million dollars! Even though adult insect collectors most often buy these bugs, beetles and stag beetles enchant both the young and old. 

Portable boxes Japanese kids use to collect insects (photo credit: Pakutaso)

Watching the Fireflies

Japanese firefly glowing in the grass

Speaking of summer insects, fireflies are also very popular among the Japanese as they emit beautiful light from their bodies. Fireflies are used in song themes and movie themes such as “Hotaru no Hikari” (“Glow of Fireflies”) and Studio Ghibli’s “Hotaru no Haka” or “Grave of the Fireflies.” Between June and August, there are even some firefly festivals where you can witness their beautiful luminescence!  Famous Japanese poets such as Issa Kobayashi, Matsuo Basho, and Yosa Buson often use insect names as seasonal words, with fireflies appearing in their poems as the second most frequently used seasonal word. From that point of view, fireflies have been a kind of long-lived, beautiful beings for Japanese people for hundreds of years.

Can you understand the Japanese people’s love for insects? Once in Japan, could you enjoy some of the activities above? Let us know in the comments!

Amélie Geeraert

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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