One morning in June my family woke up to discover that the butterfly chrysalis that my son had been cultivating in a plastic insect box in the apartment had hatched during the night and there was a big, black-and-white “ageha” butterfly in the box in its place waving its antennae around as if it was asking “Where am I? Where’s my food?” We admired it for a short while before releasing it from the balcony. (While I recognize the educational and affective benefits of keeping pets I have qualms about it: the morality of keeping a creature captive; the responsibility of caring for it; the responsibility for it in death, etc. So, although we do have pets in our house - a hamster and some newts, or water lizards called “imori” - I prefer to limit the keeping of animals on moral grounds. Therefore, I was eager to release the butterfly as soon as possible and happy that no one contested it.)
There was some disagreement about whether it was a male - with black markings - or a female - with brown markings. After it flew away we checked our animal encyclopedia, but no one paid close enough attention to its color. My son said male (“osu”), my wife female (“mesu”) - perhaps reflecting the prejudice of their own gender. I said I wished I had looked more closely at it. But I was befuddled by sleep because my wife woke me up with excited shouting to come have a look at it.
There is quite a tradition in Japanof cultivating insects (“mushi”) and bug larvae (“youchu”) in the hot, humid summer months: crickets (“koroge”); rhinoceros beetles (“kabutomushi”); stag beetles (“kuwagatamushi”); and, even cockroaches (“gokiburi”). Dollar stores feature nets and plastic boxes in time for the season. Pet stores stock up on various accessories, like mulch and nutrient jellies for the favored stag and rhinoceros beetles. Beetle vendors do a good business among aficionados - children and adults. (They constitute another kind of geek, or “otaku” that Japan is famous for: comic book otaku; animation costume playing otaku; computer game otaku; bug otaku, etc.) The largest rhinoceros and stag beetles - naturally occurring in country woodland - can sell for hundreds of dollars. Pretty dear for something that has a lifespan of just a few weeks. Some might say, pretty dear for vermin. But one culture’s vermin is another culture’s refined taste.
Take the cockroach, for example. Almost universally reviled except among entomologists and naturalists, there are those here who collect them and compete against other owners for size, strength and exoskeleton esthetics. Haiku masters past and present have even written about the cockroach. Who knows why? But one of my conclusions is that a culture must necessarily be a couple thousand years old like Japan’s in order to find beauty or merit in such a thing.
Rhinoceros and stag beetle owners will fight their beetles, like cockfighting or dog fighting. Dragonfly larvae (“yago”) and dragonflies (“tombo”) are somewhat popular, as are praying mantises (“kamakiri”). I don’t know what cricket owners do with their crickets except keep them in the house or the garden for the pleasure of listening to their chirruping. To the Japanese, the tinkle of wind chimes (“furrin,”a popular and common summertime household decoration), like the songs of insects such as the cricket, or the ubiquitous cicada (“semi”) in the humid summer make them feel cooler. Perhaps they evoke the hum of an electric fan (“sempuki”), or the swish of a folding fan (“sensu”).
It is not uncommon for elementary school teachers to give their students a plant - a potted tomato plant or some rice - or an insect larva to care for during the summer holiday. Over the years my children have variously cultivate larvae, tomatoes and rice with varying success. For some reason - maybe it’s because they are just easier to care for - the bugs do better than the plants. Rhinoceros and stag beetle larvae are ugly looking, thick white grubs that bury themselves in the mulch. But they are fascinating to watch, like I remember doing with my tropical fish when I was a child. I do not sit for hours staring at larvae like I did with my neon tetras and angelfish in the old days, but just seeing them is enough to conjure a National Geographic travelogue about the dietary customs of isolated tribes.
My son’s butterfly chrysalis was not a summertime project from his teacher. It was just something he picked off a tree on the way home from school one day. When he proudly showed me what he brought home I knew right away that it was a chrysalis (from which butterflies hatch) and not a cocoon (from which moths emerge), but I did not correct him when he called it a cocoon. It’s a common confusion. Why don’t Japanese revere and collect butterflies? Why is it always the vermin in the sweaty months? Anyway, that’s the way it is.