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Hunting for Hotaru – Fireflies Lighting Up Rainy Season


June is the month of rain.  The quiet rainfalls continue for over one month, day and night, or at least it feels so.  During this potentially depressing time of the year, small insects light up the souls of Japanese people.

Hunting for Hotaru – Fireflies

During this long rainy season after the gorgeous cherry blossoms in April and the green leaves in May, there is nothing to look forward to, and it is easy to feel empty.  The constant rain and very low clouds put everyone off going out.

But Japanese people always find small gems in nature.  One small seasonal event in gloomy June is Hotaru-gari, Firefly Hunting.

It is not simply catching these little insects, but rather people travel to places to see swarms of fireflies burning up their short lives above ground.  Floating flickering lights have been a favourite subject of poets and writers since ancient time. 


Finding the Perfect Condition

Fireflies are small insects of about 30mm.  There are over 2000 varieties in the world, and there are over 40 in Japan, mainly in the southwestern part.  The favourite in Japan is called Genji Hotaru, because it lights up brighter and longer than others, four seconds rather than one or two.

The love of Hotaru is all because of this luminescence.  The light is known as Firefly luciferin, Cold Light, which has a calming quality, without any heat.  The precise reason why fireflies produce this effect is unknown:  It could be to frighten predators or to attract the opposite sex.  Most fireflies are luminescent during the underground egg and larvae stage, as if it is dreaming about life above ground.

Hotaru in Japanese Literature

Poets and writers have long featured the Hotaru Firefly.  It is mentioned for the first time in Nihon Shoki, the Chronicles of Japan, published around 720 AD.  It is not clear where fireflies lived, and there was no custom of Hotaru hunting.  It appears only in the context of dim and floating lights.  In the first poetic compilation, Man-you Shu, published around the same time, there is only one among 4,500 poems that mention this flickering insect.

Nearly two centuries later, in the Heian Era (794 – 1185 AD), when literary culture flourished, this phenomenon caused by little creatures in the evenings started to get more attention and affection.  Interestingly, it was not the spectacle of collective lights that touched the heartstrings.  It was a few stray flickers that stretched the imaginations of creative minds. 

They were compared to small stars in the sky, glowing warmth seeping out from a window far away, or silent passion burning within.  In one of the most famous classic work of Heian time, the Tale of Genji, the author dedicated one chapter to the firefly, using its light as an effect to depict the conflicted feelings of characters.

In the Edo era (1603 – 1868 AD), with the flourishing of popular culture, firefly hunting was a seasonal and elegant thing to do.  They are featured in many drawings and Ukiyoe prints, showing what to do and where to go in May and June.

Short and Beautiful Life after Long Wait

The fact that these insects have only two weeks to fly above the ground after one long year underground gives a heartrending, nostalgic feeling to those who see them burn, a few seconds at a time, before leaving hundreds of new lives.

For Japanese people, who treasure seasonal transitions, it is one of the emotional moments in the year. 

… and Where to Find Them in Modern Japan

The modern image of Japan in many cases is that of city illumination.  However, there are many rural areas illuminated by floating fireflies every year.  For Japanese fireflies to thrive, it is critical that there is a source of clear water with soft fertile soil around it.  Many such untouched small streams lead into rice pads, creating perfect conditions.  In May and June, they light up the surface of the clear water and rice seedlings, from seven to nine o’clock in the dark, in warm and quiet evenings.  There should be no artificial lights around, so local knowledge is crucial to find the best spot and moment.

Such places and moments have become hard to find as the population has grown.  In recent years, many local governments are using this natural phenomenon to attract tourists. But to accommodate the needs, infrastructure had to be improved. This contradicts the conditions needed for fireflies to live their last period in full. So much so that some areas have to release “farmed” insects during this limited time. 

These events have been criticised, because not only are they ruining flora, but fauna too.  These insects have their own localities, and many slightly different species. By releasing farmed insects local varieties can be contaminated, resulting in the extinction of less dominant, weaker ones, by altering the natural balance.

The income from such events and tourism brought to rural areas can be wisely fed back to local groups to maintain natural beauty in its original form.  It is a shared responsibility for everyone to protect these small creatures, which keep giving their enduring flickering lights throughout the dark rainy season.

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