Insects Provide Insight Into Japanese Culture

Culture & Identity | Fellowships

Mary Knighton
Mary Knighton

Mary Knighton
VFH Fellow Mary Knighton

There is no perfect translation in English for the Japanese word mushi (蟲), explains Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) Fellow Mary Knighton at a presentation on Tuesday, September 30 in Charlottesville. Mushi expresses a variety of concepts, which in English would include bug, germ, insect, and spirit.

Knighton elaborates that this broad definition of mushi points to a larger Japanese cultural phenomenon; as insects are widely represented, they also are varyingly perceived, both as beneficial and harmful.

Knighton begins with Japan’s earliest relationship with insects, during which bugs were commonly invoked as a metaphor of the seasons. From this poetic use of mushi, Japanese culture has enduringly understood mushi as reflecting the mutability of all life.

She adds that the Japanese became more deeply enamored with bugs in the nineteenth century as Japan relaxed its restrictions on foreign trade and engaged more with the West. As part of this new relationship, Japan readily and rapidly absorbed these new perceptions of insects.

In some instances, these perceptions cultivated new physical approaches to the creatures. Most notably, Jean-Henri Fabre, the father of entomology, unintentionally encouraged a new, national pastime of bug collecting. This newly established system of classification created another way the Japanese could understand bugs — as commodities and as collectibles. Knighton appeals to the reputable documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo as contemporary evidence that this market for bug collecting is still ubiquitous, even fueling a black market.

This fascination with insects has even shaped Western culture, and its perceptions of Japan. Here, Knighton notes the popular Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly. She believes the play has shaped the fine, tragic stereotype of the butterfly, noting that it soon became a Western metonym for Japan, and the source of the historical perception of the nation as America’s ‘feminine’ and weaker partner.

Edogawa Rampo BookKnighton explains, however, that the Japanese do not always perceive bugs in such a wonderful light. In fact, insects are a common element of horror. Edogawa Rampo (aka Tarō Hirai 1894-1965) — an author whose pseudonym was an homage to the noted creator of horror, Edgar Allan Poe — used the insidiousness of insects as a means of understanding the equally insidious nature of humans.

In one of Rampo’s works, the main character murders a woman, whose body he keeps for companionship. As the body begins decaying, the character senses invisible mushi, in this case germs, affecting the corpse. As the mushi grow larger and more visible, Rampo increasingly repeats the Japanese character for mushi, making it look as if bugs are marching across the page. With an overwhelming presence of mushi both literarily and visually, Edogawa Rampo reveals the main character’s epiphany — he has been a mushi, harmful and parasitic, all along.

All Copyright belongs to Del Ray publishing.
Cover of Volume 1 of Mushishi.

Contemporarily, Japan frequently incorporates insects in its distinctive mediums of manga and anime. Usually, bugs are used as an inspiration for “mecha-warriors,” basing the armored features of these warriors on the exoskeletons of insects. Mushi-shi is a contemporary anime in which the main character is nicknamed the “bug master.” His specialty is the ability to discern the inner, or hidden, qualities of the world of mushi, which can be either curative or harmful.

It is this large variety of tropes and representations of insects in Japanese literature that Knighton has sought to investigate as part of her fellowship with VFH.

With additional support from a fellowship with ACLS/SSRC/NEH for International and Area Studies scholars, Knighton is turning these investigations into a book, Insect Selves: Poshumanism in Modern Japanese Literature and Culture that she hopes will be available in late 2015.

Mary Knighton is a visiting Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at the College of William & Mary and a Resident Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.