Akio Ohara reaches into a plastic container and scoops out a beetle that is bigger than his entire hand.
Its shell is a lustrous golden brown, and its majestic top horn stretches out far past the tips of Ohara’s fingers. Underneath, a smaller horn curves menacingly upward, primed on a set of powerful jaws.
“You’ve got to be careful it doesn’t pinch your finger,” Ohara says. “That would be very painful.”
What Ohara is holding is a Hercules beetle, the longest species of beetle in the world, which has been known to change hands for millions of yen.
Ohara is the owner of Beetle On, a specialist store in Tokyo’s Ota Ward that sells rhinoceros beetles and stag beetles, equipment for keeping and breeding them, and various other beetle-related toys and paraphernalia.
Rhinoceros beetles and stag beetles, respectively known as kabutomushi (literally meaning “Samurai helmet insect”) and kuwagata in Japanese, have long been firm favorites with Japanese children and insect enthusiasts. Many people keep them as pets or breed them, raising them from eggs to full-grown adults, while others pit them against each other in fighting tournaments, sometimes with cash prizes.
Ohara opened his store around five years ago, and his business has been steadily growing ever since. He moved to bigger premises three years ago, and he now gets around 100 customers a day at weekends. In fact, he says trade has been so brisk recently that the COVID-19 pandemic has barely affected him, despite having closed his store for a month and a half during the state of emergency.
In recent years, however, Ohara says there has been a surge in interest in beetles, with families driving the trend.
“They’re really popular at the moment,” Ohara says, amid a steady backdrop of scratching sounds emanating from the rows of plastic containers lining the racks in his store. “There are lots of shows featuring beetles on TV at the moment, and there have also been a lot of exhibitions at museums. They’re aimed at families, and you can go along and see the beetles and touch them and learn about them.
“People go and they start thinking they’d like to keep one as a pet. They go to a store, the owner teaches them how to look after the beetle, and then they’ll decide to buy one. That’s how it starts with a lot of families. Previously, it wasn’t really something families did.”
Variety of shapes and sizes
Rhinoceros beetles and stag beetles begin their lives as eggs, which hatch into larvae and grow on a diet of decomposing wood and organic matter. They then change into pupae, from which the adult insects emerge. Lifespans vary, but they generally live for between six months to a year.
Rhinoceros beetles, of which the Hercules beetle is one species, are known for their characteristic long horns and can grow to lengths of over 17 centimeters. Stag beetles, meanwhile, can grow to over 12 cm and have large mandibles which are reminiscent of a stag’s antlers.
Several species of rhinoceros beetle and stag beetle can be found in Japan, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They live in wooded areas and feed on sap from trees, with the sawtooth oak and jolcham oak both particular favorites. In captivity, they feed on a special insect jelly.
The beetle species native to Japan are, however, relatively small in size, and Ohara will typically sell adult Japanese beetles for around ¥400 each. The much larger species, which are not endemic to Japan, command a significantly higher fee. Ohara says Hercules beetles will typically retail for between ¥50,000 and ¥100,000.
The larger species of beetles cannot be found in the wild in Japan and typically live in Southeast Asia and South and Central America. Most countries have now banned the export of live specimens, however, forcing Japan’s “beetlemaniacs” to breed the insects themselves.
Love at first sight
Of the many breeders active in Japan, there is perhaps no bigger name than Hirofumi Kawano, better known by his pseudonym HirokA.
Kawano is a 51-year-old grape farmer who lives in Miyazaki Prefecture and exclusively breeds Hercules beetles. His interest started in 2006 when he saw larvae on sale at his local supermarket. He noticed the grubs were being sold for ¥1,980 each, and thought he might be able to make a profit breeding them.
He wasn’t so keen on the larvae themselves, though, and it wasn’t until he visited a specialist beetle store in Kumamoto Prefecture soon after that he saw an adult Hercules beetle for the first time and fell in love with it straight away.
Kawano began making the three-and-a-half-hour drive to the store every week to learn how to breed the beetles, and, realizing the larvae would need lots of nutrient-rich woodchip to grow into large adults, he started experimenting with his own mixtures. The stench from the decomposing matter that he stirred in 40-liter vats became so strong that he lost the ability to tell when the odor had dissipated and the mix was ready, but eventually he perfected his technique and began breeding prize-winning beetles.
In 2015, Kawano tied the world record for the longest Hercules beetle as judged by Be-Kuwa, a magazine known as the beetle breeder’s bible. Kawano’s entry measured a gargantuan 171 millimeters.
Now, Kawano sells Hercules beetles he has bred on online auction sites, markets his own HirokA brand woodchip mix in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, and strives to keep improving his technique in search of the perfect specimen.
“The hardest thing is maintaining your desire to keep breeding,” says Kawano. “You have failures and you get discouraged and you want to quit. You have to put that behind you and keep sight of your dream to keep breeding something better than you’ve ever done before — you always have the feeling that you want to beat your own record and keep improving.
“When you breed something that’s bigger than the year before or something that has a really cool shape, you feel a real sense of achievement. It’s very satisfying.”
Kawano says his beetle empire has grown bigger than his grape-farming business, to the extent that he has built a dedicated breeding facility where he is currently rearing around 2,000 beetles. The most he has ever sold an insect for is ¥580,000.
With such big profits to be made, it is little surprise that more people are beginning to take an interest.
From April next year, Sendai College of Eco and Animals, a vocational college for people who want to work with animals, is planning to launch what it believes is Japan’s first insect breeding course. The three-year program, which is still at the provisional stage, will teach students how to breed beetles, find them in the wild, prepare specimen displays and market their businesses effectively.
Admissions Officer Tsuyoshi Iwasaki says the course is aimed at people who want to go into business as insect breeders, but he says it can also help prepare students for jobs in insect stores or pet shops.
“The reason we’re starting this course is because beetle breeding has been tipped by business magazines as an area that will continue to grow,” says Iwasaki. “We decided we’d like to take up the challenge. There aren’t any other vocational colleges in Japan where you can study to become an insect breeder, so we wanted to be the first.
“There have been a lot of large-scale beetle events in Tokyo and Osaka recently,” he continues. “In 2018, the National Museum of Nature and Science put on an exhibition that drew 440,000 people. There are lots of TV shows about beetles, and shop owners tell us that their businesses are growing every year and they have a lot of customers. It feels like something that is really taking off.”
As beetle breeding becomes more popular and lucrative, however, so the danger of illegal activity around the industry increases.
Most countries have banned the export of live beetles because of conservation concerns, but demand for the insects in Japan means smuggling operations do exist. Earlier this year, a 29-year-old Japanese man was arrested in Brazil for attempting to smuggle nearly 100 live beetles out of the country.
“Now and again, someone will be arrested at an airport,” says Ohara. “They’ll have beetles in their bag and they’ll be caught.”
The beauty of breeding
For law-abiding breeders, producing new beetles is a time-consuming process and success is not guaranteed. Beetles cannot be kept together for long when they are mating because the male will kill the female. Woodchip mix must be changed regularly and the temperature must be right. Even then, there is a chance that eggs will not hatch or the insects will suddenly die. Ohara says he is currently breeding around 3,000 beetles for sale in his store, and each one needs care and attention.
For some, the beauty of breeding lies in the journey, not the destination.
“You have to rear the eggs to get the larvae, then rear the larvae into adult beetles,” says Hercules beetle breeder Kawano. “For me, the enjoyment is in the whole breeding process. You have to keep changing the woodchip mix every two or three months, and when you do that, you weigh the larvae. If they’ve grown, you feel happy. You feel moved by how much they’ve grown.”
Kawano doesn’t go as far as giving his beetles names, but others do. Ohara says many of the families who buy insects from his store treat them as pets, and even bury them when they die. Others take a more clinical approach and pin them to boards to display as specimens once their lives are over.
Whatever the attraction, Ohara says there is something for everyone.
“Beetles only live for half a year to a year, so it’s a great starting place for learning about the life cycle of something,” he says. “It used to be something really expensive that families couldn’t afford, but now lots of families buy Hercules beetles. Most people only see them in books, but you can see the real-live thing if you go to a shop. It’s like going to a zoo.
“You can take them out and play with them. You can make them fight each other, but if you don’t do it with two of the same size and species, one will kill the other. It’s a hobby for all the family.”
For Kawano, however, there is only one species of beetle that really catches his eye.
“Whenever there’s a beetle exhibition at a museum or somewhere, the Hercules beetle is always the main attraction,” he says. “They’re the top-class rhinoceros beetle. They’re like the king of the rhinoceros beetles. That’s what I like about them.”