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Autumn Friends


Our long hot summer is drawing to a close, and now that the nights have become cool, it is once again time for a visit from some old friends - 'aki no mushi', the autumn insects. Unfortunately, because I live in a concrete apartment, I have no garden, but there is a small green space just below my workroom window, and as I sit carving my woodblocks in the still evenings of this pleasant season, I turn off my radio and enjoy the chorus from the bushes outside.

During my years in Japan I have learned that the songs of these autumn insects are a very important part of the culture of this country. They are one of the major signs of the changing seasons, and people seem to become quite nostalgic when they first hear them each fall. This was all the more surprising to me because in my previous home, in Western Canada, I heard almost no insect sounds. Cicadas and crickets were just things in books to me, and I never heard them in real life until I came to Japan. As a typical Canadian, insects to me were simply pests, and the idea that they could have redeeming features was quite foreign. The idea of hanging up a small cage with a tiny insect inside, as some people here do, in order to enjoy its song ... this was unbelievable. Keeping an insect in your room!

Actually, there are some insects that I remember from my childhood that are also to be found here. I spent a decade or so living on the Canadian prairies, and the scourge of our summer camping trips there were mosquitoes and horseflies, no strangers to Japan ... I don't think anybody here is nostalgic about these two annoying pests! All in all though, it does seem that the general feeling the Japanese people have for insects is quite favourable. With one very surprising exception ... our little friend the caterpillar. It never ceases to amaze me that people here can feel such strong feelings of fear and loathing for a creature that is actually so gentle and harmless. To most people from my society, caterpillars are quite 'cute', but here, if I pick one up in the palm of my hand, women (and not only women!) scream with disgust.

It thus seems that our behaviour towards insects is very much influenced by local culture, rather than being something basic to all human beings. It's training, not heredity. So, now that I live in Japan, I do the best I can to follow Japanese cultural patterns, and have learned to welcome this cheerful group of visitors each fall. I have learned to enjoy them for their songs, and for the seasonal messages they bring. But if only they didn't remind me each time they come that I have become a year older ...