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Saturday, Sep. 10, 2011

JAPAN LITE

The power of spiders in rural Japan


Special to The Japan Times

Although I have lived in Japan's countryside for well over a decade, I have only recently come to understand the power of spiders.

I've seen one spider put the fear of God into an entire family of foreign tourists. Even the shyest spider only has to appear in a minshuku (Japanese style inn) guest room wall and the guests will be shaking in their boots. It's not as if the spider was particularly rude, yelling and shaking his eight fists at them. But still, the tourists high-tailed it down the road to a different minshuku.

The thing about spiders is that most people don't like them. In Japan, spiders tend to be big like the ashidaka (heteropoda venatoria) which can be 10 cm wide.

But much worse is that people allow themselves to be bullied by these gentle creatures. Spiders, hence, have a reputation as being little dictators who run around threatening people. But nothing could be further from the truth. Spiders are just doing their harmless, everyday spider things — like hanging out in the corner of the shower.

I deal with spider complaints from tourists who come from cities all around the world. They don't understand that in Japan, there is no question that spiders rule. And although the spiders may seem like the local daimyo, indigenous ones are not poisonous and they do not attack civilians. They don't even carry guns, knives or swords. We have had no reports of spiders biting tourists either.

It makes me wonder why we have this superiority complex when it comes to insects. Spiders are far less creepy than those old geezers in Tokyo's Kabukicho.

I think we should put up a sign at the ferry port that says: "Warning, this is the countryside — insects live here!"

For tourists coming from cities where spiders have been sprayed into extinction, coming to an island like ours (a national park no less) can be overwhelming. I've seen foreigners describing spiders they've seen by using hand gestures equal to those used for telling someone how big the fish was that they caught. "The spider was this big!" Now wait a minute, I think, are you sure it wasn't your girlfriend? She's that big and has hairy legs too.

"I saw a spider in the shower!" a horrified tourist told me. Now, I know that the spider was minding its own business. It's not like spiders have iPhones. They are not going to take a video of you in the shower and upload it to YouTube.

If there were spider infestations I would understand. Spiders holding protests or sit-ins? Okay, then there is a problem. But the honest arachnid living on shower welfare working hard to support a family in the corner of the bathroom? Seems pretty egotistical to think he'd have any interest in you.

The people who complain about the spiders try to act cool as if it was really no big deal; it's not as if they're afraid of them. But really, if no one does anything about it, they're going to have to change accommodations. Who ever promised these people they wouldn't have spiders in their accommodations anyway?

I don't mean to seem like a spider rights advocate, but I do feel someone has to be an ombudsman for Mother Nature's arthropodic side. It's healthy to have a certain amount of insects inside a house so they can eat other insects. Spiders eat roaches, for example. My only concern is that the spiders will soon get lazy. I overheard one joro spider (nephila clavata, those ubiquitous yellow spotted ones that live in the mountains and build webs across trails) say: "Hey, there's a new housing development over there. We can move in tomorrow!" I worry they'll eventually forget how to build their own webs.

Perhaps the minshuku should have signs that say, "Please kill your own spiders" since it's the guest's arachnophobia rather than the spider that is causing the problems. Believe me, if you kill one spider, the next one is not going to move in to that shower till at least seven days after the funeral. Especially if the new one reads the deceased's death certificate: Cause of death — shower sandal.

Why is it that people find spiders so scary? It couldn't be their appearance. I mean, us big hairy humans are hardly ones to talk. Can you imagine what a witness would say in a spider court of law? "Well, your honor, this big hirsute creature with four appendages came into the shower stall carrying a sandal which he then placed over Arnold and squished him!" In spider terms, the penalty for "squishing" is only slightly less than for crunching or pre-meditated splatting.

I did a cursory search on the Internet, and was surprised to find so much spider hate speech. Some forums did give useful advice, however, such as 1) Stay away from the countryside and 2) Don't actively look for spiders (cause you'll find 'em!). I'd add to that some spiders-in-Japan advice: Japanese spiders like genkan and showers and they prefer minshuku to ryokan. The more you pay for accommodation, the less likely you are to find spiders (read: generous use of insecticides).

Of course now I have to think of some graceful way to end this column so you won't think I'm just a pro-spider rights enthusiast who has no compassion for people who participate in "I hate spiders" forums on the Internet and who freak out when a spider shares their countryside accommodation.

So I'll end by saying merely that to come to Japan, you don't necessarily have to be one with nature, but you have to have a high tolerance for it.

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