BEETLEMANIA

Love, love them do

by Rob Gilhooly

Ask Kyoshi Matsushita about “Beatlemania” and he’s far more likely to wax lyrical about Lucanidae, Silphidae, Scarabaedae and Dorcus titanus than John, Paul, George and Ringo.

“They’re cool, they’re beautiful,” the 32-year-old signwriter enthuses about his pinups as he strokes a fearsome-looking 120-mm-long rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) clinging leechlike to his arm. “I can’t imagine how people can be grossed out by these kinds of insects. Spiders maybe, but not beetles.”

To youngsters in the rural outskirts of Yokohama, where he lives with his wife and three children, Matsushita is known simply as the “Beetle Man.” Not surprising, really, as one room of the family’s three-room apartment is home to a collection of more than 1,000 specimens from around the globe — a hoard worth around 5 million yen, or “enough to make the wife have a fit if she knew,” he says.

If that sounds a bit cramped, though, it’s positively palatial compared with last year’s arrangement. Until then, Matsushita also had his bug-breeding equipment under the same roof as well. Now, he and four fellow enthusiasts have rented a riverside house nearby to deal with that side of their bugs’ lives. Its rooms are crammed with large glass incubators and hundreds of jars and plastic boxes filled with beetle pupae, larvae and mating beetles from as far away as China, Nepal, India and the Congo.

Lucanid’s Breeding Factory, as this rickety little house is known (Lucandae is the scientific name for the stag beetle), is monitored by the five members in turn, and beetles bred there are among those sold from the backyard of Matsushita’s parents-in-law’s nearby home. Customers come from as far away as Niigata and Osaka, Matsushita says, while others make postal orders from advertisements or via their Web site.

Despite the intrusion on their daily lives, his family do not seem inconvenienced. “Fortunately, my wife and children are pretty fond of beetles, too. Even when the children were babies I used to stick beetles on their legs and arms, so they are used to them being a part of the family.”

When he was a child, Matsushita spent most of his summers in the woods, an insect encyclopedia in hand, searching under leaves and fallen trees for creepy-crawlies. Though at that time neighbors called him “the bug professor,” he admits to curbing his enthusiasm during high school. But not for long, as the birth of his first child 12 years ago was a good enough excuse to rekindle his bug love.

“Even before he could speak properly we would go searching for beetles in the woods,” Matsushita says. “I’d like to think he was an early starter, but half of it was probably for my own benefit.”

Since then beetlemania has taken over the household. His daughters, aged 11 and 5, nonchalantly play with stag beetles like they would a Barbie doll. Almost every day in summer Matsushita takes them and their friends on beetle hunts in the woods. At the request of a local elementary school he also takes pupils and teachers on an annual beetle-hunting field trip.

“Children these days spend their free time indoors playing mind-numbing video games, so I’m only too happy to show them another, healthier, more educational type of entertainment,” he says.

Family trips to Yamanashi, Fukushima, Gunma and other countryside locations are arranged with one objective. “We might plan a trip to a hot spring, but they know it’s really an excuse to go beetle hunting,” says Matsushita with a laugh.

The obsession, he admits, may seem odd to some non-Japanese; but catching and keeping rhinoceros and stag beetles — of which there are around 1,000 species worldwide, with 30-odd in Japan — has long been a popular summer pastime. Japanese children are attracted by the single long horn protruding from the thorax of the former (giving it the name kabutomushi in Japanese) and the latter’s deerlike horns and, in some genera, their array of glittering metallic colors.

Most of all, though, beetles are extremely easy to keep and even breed, says Matsushita. Not only do they take up little space, kept as they are in small plastic boxes, but all they need are bits of wood and for food, a type of jello sold at pet shops.

It’s not all child’s play, though. More recently, breeding beetles and collecting fine specimens has caught on among adults as well — with many no doubt attracted by the money to be made.

According to Matsushita — whose own top-priced specimen set him back 100,000 yen — 160-mm rhinoceros beetles can fetch up to 300,000 yen, while in 1999 a very large stag beetle was sold in Japan for 4 million yen. (He notes that dead specimens, killed before they develop unwanted scars and scratches, fetch higher prices due to being in mint condition.)

Fashions, however, are forever changing, he says, with demand for newer and rarer foreign species sometimes leaving formerly prized varieties literally out in the cold as irresponsible breeders and dealers dump old stock.

Matsushita says he knows of one such instance, in which a large Taiwanese stag beetle was superseded in popularity by a rare Chinese variety. As a result, Taiwanese beetles dumped in Yamanashi and Fukushima prefectures have interbred with indigenous varieties to produce a chunky hybrid that’s already becoming a familiar sight, Matsushita says, adding that no one yet knows the possible ecological implications.

The collector freely admits that the going prices might sound preposterous, but explains that since the sought-after varieties require lengthy searches in distant corners of Japan or overseas, the cost of buying them from a dealer is often less than catching them yourself.

Not that he doesn’t try. Although Matsushita already possesses the entire range of Japan’s stag beetles — which he bought, in teak display boxes, from a dealer in Aomori — his dream is to travel around the country and catch each one himself.

Indeed, right now, he and his family are in Okinawa hunting a prized Okinawan round-winged stag beetle. A rare 70-mm-plus catch could, he says, net him as much as 200,000 yen — dead or alive.

“But there’s no way I’d sell it,” he says.