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Saturday, July 13, 2002

JAPAN LITE

Giving our insects a permanent vacation


On July 7th, all bad insects left our island. How do I know? I threw them out myself, along with 40 other islanders.

I was looking forward to this event, called "mushi okuri" (sending off of the insects) because I was interested in seeing exactly how they'd throw them out. I'd never kicked an insect off an island before.

I've always annihilated the insects on our island in my own way: by swatting, squashing, decapitating or spraying them with insecticide. But this is not the Buddhist way. Buddhists don't like to kill anything, not even insects, so instead, we merely see them off and hope we can convince them to stay away.

At 10 a.m., we all gathered at the Buddhist temple and knelt on the tatami floor and said prayers. We chanted sutras and prayed to the wooden boat set up on an altar, which was surrounded by the usual shiny gold decorations common to temples.

When prayers were over, one man lifted up the boat, held it high in the air, and walked out to the crowd waiting outside. He played with the boat in the air, making motions as if it were at sea, forging through choppy waves.

Then he put the boat down and tied it to two bamboo poles which were used in the fashion of a stretcher, to carry the boat to the sea.

Then I received my insect. Everyone is in charge of one insect that represents the entire family of that insect.

When I saw my insect was a termite, I screamed, "Kawaii!" My termite was, well, cute! He (I'm assuming it was a boy termite) had a yellow body and blue wings.

That's because the island's elementary schoolchildren drew the insects at school and Japanese kids only know how to draw cute things.

Their pictures the kids had drawn were made into banners tied to small bamboo sticks so we could carry these representations rather than thrash about in the fields to find the real McCoy, like they did a thousand years ago.

The gray-haired pony-tailed man had a centipede. The barber had a bee. The carpenter had a hairy worm and the builder had a moth. Three little old ladies carried banners of a beetle, an ant and a cute blob that no one could recognize.

Everyone admired my termite. He represented the island's entire subterranean population of Reticulitermes flavipes!

I'd never had such responsibility in my life.

I tried my hardest not to get too attached to my cute insect because mushi-okuri is like 4-H Club. You take care of your animal, but eventually you have to either eat it or give it away.

I've had a habit since childhood to immediately name anything I like, so it was natural that I started wondering if there was any way I'd be able to keep Charlie.

Couldn't I just take him home?

After all, I couldn't have received a more appropriate insect. My house happens to be a famous restaurant for termites. Termites come from all over for a bite of my house. At this very moment, they were probably chowing down on the joists and on their second serving of wall studs. And it was still breakfast time.

The procession was ready to begin and two men hoisted the boat tied to the bamboo poles onto their shoulders. And at the same time Charlie and I started our long walk, our "hana no michi" to the sea. We circled the island, around the fields and between houses, shouting out: "Leaf-eaters, root-eaters, see them all off! Leaf eaters, root-eaters see them all off!"

We finally arrived at the beach and launched our insect boat among unsuspecting tourists. But I was surprised when everyone tore the banners off their poles, crumpled them up and tossed them into the boat.

In seconds, Charlie became a crunched up ball of garbage!

What was more surprising was two days later when some men knocked on my door to inform me that they would be spraying for pine bark beetles. Come to think of it, no one was carrying a banner with a pine bark beetle on it . . .



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