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Saturday, July 7, 2001

JAPAN LITE

There's no terminating hungry termites


I'm so hungry, I could eat a house! That is the termite's mantra. My neighbor Kazuko is having her house rebuilt, as it has been consumed by termites, which the Japanese call "shiroari" ("white ants").

It's common knowledge that termites eat wooden structures. People act as if this is a perfectly normal thing for termites to do. Yet if I were to sit down and attempt to eat an ice cream cone as tall as the Eiffel Tower, I'd be considered insane. Tiny insects eating houses is not normal!

Kazuko blames the large old pine stump behind my house as the source of the termites. She dug out some of the rotted wood and uncovered millions of shiroari, happily munching away on the stump with chopsticks.

I'd never seen shiroari before. I thought they would be fat and have splinters sticking out of their sides. But no, they were tiny. I guess tree stumps don't have many calories. Once the shiroari realized they had been exposed, however, they started squirming around, having termite convulsions.

"The shiroari are just babies," Kazuko explained. "It's the babies who eat the wood."

So houses are baby food. Good thing they stop eating wood when they get bigger, or else they would have to be on Tokyo Dome diets.

When the babies grow up, they sprout wings and are called "hane-ari" ("winged ants"), which later grow to become jet airplanes with direct flights to tropical places like Bali where there are even more termites.

So the problem now is that termites are eating the walls and floors of the houses near the tree stump, including mine. According to Kazuko, about 10 years ago, just after the pine was cut down, the bath in my house suddenly fell through the floor. I wasn't living here at the time, but still, it's not a comforting thought -- bathing among convulsing termites.

The owners of the house replaced the entire bathroom, including the floor and walls.

I bet the cavemen are up in heaven watching us and laughing their heads off:

Caveman #1: The house men are at it again!

Caveman #2: Building more houses?

Caveman #1: Yes! With wooden walls!

Caveman #2: Ha ha ha!

I don't know how termites manage to get whole houses into their tiny bodies, but one thing is sure -- they don't swallow their food like snakes do. This saves a lot of embarrassment:

Neighbor: What's that thin white layer over your house?

Me: Oh nothing. It's just been swallowed by a termite.

Instead, termites work at it slowly and deliberately, as if it were some public works project.

As Kazuko and I stood observing the shiroari, I swear I saw one manning a small crane. He was wearing one of those construction worker uniforms and saying, "Well, we're anxious to get this stump project done so we can finish off the Chavez house." As if the stump were just an hors d'oeuvre! Then he took out a file from his tool belt and started sharpening his teeth.

I guess having a rotting pine stump outside your house in Japan is the same as having a small plastic model of a house, putting it on display in the window, and opening up a restaurant for termites. I should probably be serving beer, as I imagine beer would go very well with house.

At this very moment, termites are dining on my house. I know they're there because I am occasionally attacked by flying termites that come out of the walls. They also tend to throw off their wings and leave them lying around. But I'm not going to let those termites have my house! This house ain't no "keki setto." I'm going to show those termites who's boss. By falling right through the floor.

Then I'll build a cave.



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