Crash Course: Fireflies

It’s rainy season here in Japan but there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. And I do mean a very small light. More specifically, the light of a firefly.

While June is the month of irises, hydrangea and rain, it’s also the month of the firefly (hotaru in Japanese). Just like the beloved cherry blossoms of spring, fireflies are a fleeting sight in Japan. They emerge from local rivers – where they have been hiding out in their larval form – to light up the nights with their bioluminescent mating signals before disappearing just a few short weeks later. Catch scores of them, though, in their flickering glory and it’s a sight you’ll never forget.

Fireflies in Japan (Photo source: The Japan Times)
Fireflies in Japan (Photo source: The Japan Times)

Fireflies have a long history in Japanese culture. Since the 8th century, the insects were seen as a sign of passionate love and their short life span was often associated with the life of a samurai, a life that burned bright before burning out. ┬áInterestingly enough, the two species of fireflies in Japan are named after the major rival clans of Japan’s feudal period – the Heike and the Genji. In popular culture, fireflies have influenced Japan’s entertainment industry, as in the 1988 animated film Hotaru no Haka, or Grave of the Fireflies. Lightening bugs are also the subject of Japan’s high school graduation song, Hotaru no Hikari, which is sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. (You can see all verses of the song here.)

So if these little creatures have managed to capture the admiration of the Japanese public so much, where can one see them in Japan? Sadly, the truth is that polluted rivers and streams have greatly diminished the habitat of Japan’s fireflies. In recent years, efforts have been made to clean up and restore these areas to once more increase the population of fireflies but the going is slow. In the meantime, some onsen in northern Japan offer the chance to see these beautiful insects up close. There is also a restaurant in Tokyo that has fireflies in its back garden.

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