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Six-legged pirates of the Seto Inland Sea

by Amy Chavez

The “matsu-kui” (pine bark beetle) exterminators once again came to my door this morning. “We’re going to be spraying for matsu-kui bugs,” they said. Every year they come to my door and say this. And every year I try to tell them that this is not necessary. “The pine bark beetles are already gone,” I tell them. “We threw them all off the island in the Mushi Okuri ceremony last week.”

Mushi Okuri is a Shinto ceremony where we march around the island carrying a wooden boat, and call all the bad insects to come and get on the boat. After we’ve been through every part of the island, and collected all the bad insects, we march down to the beach and set the boat out to sea. This has been the islanders’ effective way of getting rid of bad insects, such as leaf-eaters and root-eaters, for hundreds of years. I always wonder, though, what happens to the insects after that? After all, we’ve just given them a boat! These insect pirates could be landing on other islands and wreaking havoc on the entire Seto Inland Sea.

At any rate, we don’t need exterminators. If the pine bark beetle exterminators must come, due to bid-rigging contracts or something, perhaps they should just try to exterminate any rogue insects that manage to avoid getting on the boat. The problem with the exterminators is that they kill the good insects as well as the bad.

How do you tell a good insect from a bad insect? First you must be able to identify the insect. City people tend to use “insect cages” to catch insects and inspect them. Some use small clear insect boxes, with a magnifying glass set in the lid. But if you are an islander, you can see the insects perfectly well without such devices. This is because we’re short and closer to the ground. Most islanders are old, and were born long ago when all Japanese people were tiny. And now they’re even tinier because they are bent over.

At 150 cm, I’m a mere speck, and so close to the ground that I regularly greet insects when I pass them on the street. Of course I do this in the local lingo: “Ohayo-san!” I even sometimes shake their hands, or rather legs. It’s very difficult to know which leg to shake, as the custom is different for each insect — the beetles prefer a left-leg “handshake,” and the ants a middle leg “handshake” (because they’re always carrying something with their front legs). The centipedes I just bow to. The really bad insects, such as maggots, don’t give greetings at all — they just slink past, giving you the eye.

The flying insect world is above all of this, so to speak. I just wave to them. Dragonflies and butterflies seldom take the time to stop for greetings, but if they do, they prefer to touch antennae, which they say is cleaner than a handshake. But most of the flying insect world baffles me. Take gnats, for example. What is it about that space above your head that they like so much? And why is gnat spelled with a “g”? You’ll find all kinds of gnats flying around the lights of beverage vending machines at night. They just don’t get it — you have to put money into those machines to get a drink!

I met some foreigners visiting our island last week and they said they were surprised at how many termites were in the “minshuku” they were staying at. “They were everywhere!” they said. I sympathized with them because termites are definitely bad insects. I saw the foreigners again the day after the Mushi Okuri ceremony and asked them how they were getting along with the termites. “It’s so strange,” they said. “We haven’t seen any lately.”

I didn’t say a word.