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NIPPONIA No.29 June 15, 2004

Japanese Animals and Culture
The Dragonfly Isles
Written by Konishi Masayasu, entomologist   Photo by Moriue Nobuo

A red dragonfly resting its wings. Dragonflies are a common and welcome sight in rice fields and other places from summer to autumn.

It is said that Japanese people are the world's most ardent insect fans. The ones they like best are dragonflies, fireflies, and insects that chirp in the fall. At the larva stage, dragonflies live in water, and Japan has plenty of water in rice fields, rivers and streams for them to develop. There are about 190 dragonfly species in Japan, and the number of dragonflies overall is also impressive. Since ancient times, the Japanese have enjoyed observing dragonflies, as history shows.
The earliest proof of this would be pictures on ceremonial dotaku bells made from the middle to the end of the Yayoi period (around the second century BC to the third century AD). The bells, made of bronze, could be suspended, and some were decorated with primitive pictures of dragonflies, along with praying mantises and spiders—all insects good for humans because they prey on insects that eat rice plants. Historians believe that the insect pictures represent prayers for a good harvest.
The Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan, compiled 720 AD) is a history of ancient Japan. It mentions dragonflies, which were called akitsu in those days. The Chronicle says that the first emperor, Jimmu Tenno, climbed a small mountain in Yamato (present-day Nara Prefecture), gazed down on the land he ruled, and said, "The shape of my country is like two akitsu mating."
The Chronicle also describes an incident when the 21st emperor, Yuryaku Tenno, was hunting in an open plain in Yoshino (southern Nara Prefecture today). A horsefly landed on his arm and stung him. Just then, a dragonfly swooped down and took off with the horsefly. The emperor was so satisfied with this that he named the area Akitsu-no (Dragonfly Plain). The Chronicle says that these events gave Japan its old name, Akitsu Shima (The Dragonfly Isles).
Dragonflies were thought of as kachi-mushi (victor insects) which bring good luck, perhaps partly because of the horsefly story. Samurai helmets, soldiers' hats, family crests and other items were decorated with a lucky dragonfly design.
A collection of songs passed down from the late 1100s has one about how to trap dragonflies, and Japanese children have been catching them for centuries. Youngsters would observe them carefully, discover their habits, and invent ways to capture them. One way is shown in Japan's first illustrated encyclopedia, edited in the early 1700s by Terajima Ryoan and called Wakan Sansai Zue (Japanese-Chinese Illustrated Collection of the Three Components of the Universe). The picture shows a female dragonfly tied by a string to a short pole. Children are using it to attract and catch a male. Until recently this otori-dori trapping method was popular, using a silver gin-yamma or some other large dragonfly.
Another way to trap them is called hikkake-dori. Small stones are wrapped in pieces of cloth, which are tied to the two ends of a string measuring about 60 cm in length. The device is thrown at a gin-yamma, which thinks it is something to eat and flies at it, only to get entangled in the string and fall to earth, easy prey for kids.
Gin-yamma and other large dragonflies are not seen as much these days, partly because of environmental degradation. So we do not see children chasing dragonflies much any more, either. We can only hope that the traditional ways to catch them, developed after observing their natural behavior, will live on for future generations.
We still sing a children's song, Aka-tombo (Red Dragonflies), which was written in 1921. Many communities have dug dragonfly ponds as part of the current movement to protect nature. Japan's unique "dragonfly culture" will hopefully live on for centuries to come.


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