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The Light of the Firefly: What is its Role in Japanese Culture?

Japanese fireflies in Okayama Prefecture

The firefly (or lightning bug as we call it in my hometown) has always been my favorite insect.  Surrounded by hundreds in a field on a summer night can take your breath away and make you feel as though you’re in a fairytale.

Well, the other day I was perusing one of my favorite websites (japanese.about.com) and I found an article about the role fireflies (known as “hotaku” in Japanese) play in Japanese society.  It was really fascinating!

According to Namiko Abe, the Japanese language guide for japanese.about.com, fireflies have quite a few meanings in Japan. She wrote that the firefly’s mystical light has been a metaphor for passionate love in poetry since Man’you-shu (the 8thcentury anthology-which is the oldest collection of poetry in Japan). The firefly is not only a symbol of love but it also has a

Image from the movie “Grave of the Fireflies”

supernatural meaning, too. “Their eerie lights are also thought to be the altered form of the souls of soldiers who have died in war,” wrote Abe. I believe that this metaphor is used throughout the popular 1988 Japanese animated film, “Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Firelies)” as a representation of not only the soldiers that died in World War II but also of innocent citizens who died from “side effects” of the war (such as starvation).

Another form of poetry that fireflies have been the subject of is music. “Hotaru no Hikari (Light of the Firefly)” is a very popular song in Japan. According to Puneeta (from the blog Japan-as I know it), this song is sung to the Scottish tune of “Auld Lang Syne” and is sung mostly at graduations or as a symbol of “the end” (such as the end of a business day).  I really like the Japanese version! The lyrics are beautiful. Below are the lyrics to this song as they were listed on Puneeta’s blog:

Lyrics of Hotaru no Hikari (with English translation)

hotaru no hikari, mado no yuki. (Light of fireflies, snow by the window)
fumi yomu tsukihi, kasanetsutsu.(Many suns and moons spent reading)
itsushika toshi mo, sugi no to wo. (Years have gone by without notice)
aketezo kesa wa, wakare yuku. (Day has dawned; this morning we part)

tomaru mo yuku mo, kagiri tote ( Stay or leave, either an end)
katami ni omofu, chiyorozu no (Think as mementos; so many)
kokoro no hashi wo, hitokoto ni (Corners of my heart, in one word)
sakiku to bakari, utafu nari. (Sing for peace)

tsukushi no kiwami, michi no oku (Far reaches of Kyushu, far along roads)
umi yama tohoku, hedatsu tomo (Though separated by seas and mountains)
sono magokoro wa, hedate naku (Its sincere heart is not.)
hitotsu ni tsukuse, kuni no tame. (Serve single-mindedly for our country)

chishima no oku mo, okinawa mo (From the ends of Chishima to Okinawa),
yashima no uchi no, mamori nari. (All part of Japan)
itaran kuni ni, isa o shiku. (Contribute to our great country)
tsutomeyo wagase, tsutsuganaku (I’ll faithfully devote my life)

Similar in concept to “hanami” (the cherry blossom viewing that occurs earlier in the year in Japan), Abe also wrote about “hotaru-gari”. She said that “hotaru-gari” is a popular activity where people go out on summer nights to view the fireflies’ glow. Abe went on to say that because of pollution, the fireflies are sadly decreasing as they only live in clean streams.

Japanese fireflies near a stream in Okayama Prefecture

Do you have fireflies in your area? Do they have any special meanings that are different than the ones listed here? If so, leave a comment and let me know! 🙂

***If you’d like to read the posts where I received this information, here are their links:

Namiko Abe from japanese.about.com: Relationships with Nature: Firefly-The Role of the Firefly in Japanese Society

Puneeta: Japan-as I know it: Hotaru no Hikari (Glow of the Fireflies)