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These are the kind of common bug boxes every kid has. They sell them everywhere, you can get them for 100 yen at the 100 yen shop.

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri Columnist

My home town in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States was chock full of insects. We children interacted with these insects on a daily basis. For the most part, however, this interaction took the form of war maneuvers conducted against the hordes of wasps and hornets that threatened our tree houses and secret hideouts. Even when we went swimming, we were constantly ducking and swatting in a never-ending battle with huge horseflies.

We never thought of these insects as possible companions or objects of study or observation. In fact, we had no knowledge whatsoever of their structure or behavior. The country boys knew a lot about squirrels, deer, pheasants and other animals that they hunted, but had no interest at all in the lives of puny insects or spiders.

Even myself, a great lover of nature and animals, pretty much ignored my insect neighbors. In the town library I found the stories of Ernest Thompson Seton and plenty of good reading books about dogs, wolves, bears, birds and other animals, but there was nothing there to tempt me into an interest in the wee critters. I knew far more about dinosaurs and Siberian tigers than I did about the dragonflies that lived in my own front yard.

It was much later on in life that a chance encounter affected a miracle cure on my ignorance of insects. As a young soldier in the U.S. army I was sent to serve here in Japan. I was stationed at Camp Zama, near the Sagamigawa river in Kanagawa Prefecture. In those days, the region outside the base was still very rural, and on days off I often ventured out for walks or bike rides.

There was much in the Japanese landscape and people that surprised and delighted me. I had never seen rice paddies or bamboo groves before, or Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Still, one of my greatest shocks was to meet groups of small children armed with insect nets on long bamboo poles. No one in my home town had owned an insect net, and to be honest I had never even seen one before, except in movies. It seemed incredible to me that just regular school children could own and use such sophisticated equipment.

Well, that was my first encounter with Japan, and my first experience in a culture where insects are thought of as major league players. Over the years I quickly learned that insect nets and little plastic rearing boxes could be bought for pocket change at any small store. I watched in awe as Japanese children skillfully caught all sorts of cicadas, dragonflies, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, then took them home in plastic cases to feed them and watch them grow or listen to their songs.

I was especially amazed to realize that these children not only caught and kept these insects, but that they could call them all by their proper name, and even knew quite a bit about their body structure and how they fed and mated. I wondered where in the world they got such specialized knowledge from. This led me to spend some time in libraries and bookstores, where I made yet another startling discovery.

In the children’s sections the shelves were solidly stocked with dozens of great books about insects. In clearly written volumes, lavishly illustrated with detailed photographs and drawings, I could learn how cicadas and crickets make their sounds, how dragonflies mate and grow, how the praying mantis lays her eggs, how rhinoceros and stag beetles feed and fight.

There were even books that traced the yearly cycle of wasp and hornet nests. In my own childhood I had bravely participated in the local crusades against these insects. I had stoned and soaked their nests, and had been stung more times than I could ever remember. But now I was learning for the first time how they hunted their prey, and what their nests were made of. A whole new world was opening up before my very eyes. Before I realized it I was evolving into what the Japanese call a konchu-shonen, or “insect boy.”

I have often wondered why Japanese people have such a great love for insects. Many of my Japanese friends suggest that this phenomenon is due to the great number and diversity of insects that are found here. True, the Japanese countryside, with its rice paddies and oak woodlands, provides ideal habitat for many species of insect. But in my own home town insects are even more numerous than here. On a summer night, with my bedroom window open, the chorus of katydids and crickets was simply deafening. After a five-minute drive the front windshield of our car was plastered several layers thick with squashed specimens. Surrounded on all sides by insects, we chose to ignore all but those that posed us some direct threat.

Maybe the Japan-U.S. gap in insect-consciousness can be attributed, at least in part, to our very different historical experiences. We Americans still cling to our frontier mentality. After all, less than 150 years have passed since the western half of our continent was stolen from its original owners. As a small boy, I grew up worshipping Davy Crockett and other frontiersmen and explorers. I was enchanted by the very concept of sheer, untamed wilderness, inhabited by timber wolves, moose, grizzly bears and mountain lions.

The Japanese islands, in contrast, have been densely settled for several thousand years. Japanese nature sensitivities, as can be clearly seen in their art and poetry, are focused more on a well-ordered countryside than on a stark, chaotic wilderness. This attention to small details in one’s own backyard, leads the Japanese in the direction of their closest and most numerous neighbors, the insects!

(Jul. 2, 2007)

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