Insects as Pets in Edo Period Japan

Insects are commonly viewed as bothersome creatures that fly around picnics or swarming under summer streetlights, but certain cultures throughout history have held entirely different perspectives on them.

During ancient times in Japan, individuals would raise crickets for the purpose of their chirping, as they believed it would bring them good fortune. 

The Aztecs revered and cared for beautifully decorated beetles. 

These instances demonstrate that insects have been more than just a nuisance; in some human cultures they have been appreciated as cherished companions, or even as pets.

Keeping Crickets as Pets in Japan 

During the Heian period (794–1185), it was common for nobles to catch crickets from the fields and place them in bamboo baskets to enjoy their soothing sounds at home. The Tale of Genji, a classic from this era, describes activities such as catching insects, releasing them in gardens, and hosting parties where guests would listen to their chirping.

Over time, the practice of keeping crickets as pets grew popular among commoners. By the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868), cricket sellers (鈴虫売り) began to appear, setting up specialized stalls where people could purchase various species of insects.

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The popularity of insects during the Edo period is clear from books like "Korin Gafu" by Ogata Korin, which has pictures of many crickets, and "Edo Meisho Zue," a guide to famous places in Edo that mentions spots where crickets can be heard or bought. The detailed illustrations and descriptions in these books provide a window into the significance of insects in Edo period society.

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Caring for Crickets

Insect enthusiasts from the samurai class usually bought crickets in late summer and early fall at special insect markets in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. The purchased insects were placed in fancy cages called "mushikago," which were crafted from bamboo, wood, or intricate metalwork. These cages were both practical and aesthetically pleasing, showcasing the artistry of their makers.

In Edo period Japan, anyone interested in keeping crickets could purchase detailed guides from bookshops. These books covered every aspect of cricket care, from feeding them to building their cages.

Caring for crickets involved providing a diet of grains, vegetables, and occasionally small insects. Maintaining the right humidity and temperature, similar to their native environment, was crucial. During the Edo period, cricket keepers regulated humidity inside baskets by using water-filled trays or damp cloths. Overall, providing a suitable environment for the crickets was essential to keep them chirping happily.

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The Crickets in Japanese culture

Crickets' chirping, known as "kusa mushi," has long fascinated the Japanese. Different cricket species produce distinct songs, which can be differentiated based on subtle clues.

In Tokugawa Japan, listening to insect chirping was a calming activity often enjoyed during quiet evenings. Special gatherings called "mushi-awase" were organized, where people compared the sounds of their crickets, much like a music contest. The songs were categorized into types such as "tombomushi" (dragonfly cricket) and "suzumushi" (bell cricket), each with its own unique rhythm and tone.

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Edo period woman holding a basket with a cricket inside

The chirping sound of crickets, referred to as "koorogi" in Japanese, holds a revered place in poetry, literature, and art. This melodic chirping evokes a profound emotion known as "mono no aware," which celebrates the transient beauty of life's passing moments.

The delicate and fleeting nature of the crickets' song serves as a reminder of the impermanence of all things; prompting poets and artists to capture this bittersweet emotion in their works. 

Renowned haiku poets like Matsuo Basho frequently incorporate cricket chirping songs into their verses, imbuing them with a sense of mono-no-aware. Basho, in one of his haikus, wrote:

"The cricket's song,
A comfort to my loneliness,
On this autumn night."

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Cricket Fighting

Insect fighting, involving pitting male crickets against each other, was a common form of entertainment enjoyed across all social classes in the past. Bets were often placed on the winner. While cricket fighting was popular in imperial China, it was not a tradition in Japan.

The species of Crickets used as pets

During the Edo period, various species of crickets were kept as pets, each with distinctive characteristics and chirping patterns. Some crickets were prized for their loud and clear chirps, while others were valued for their unique colors and patterns.

Suzumushi (Homoeogryllus japonicus): Also known as the bell cricket, this cricket is famed for its clear, bell-like chirping, which is highly valued. The suzumushi's song is often associated with autumn and evokes a sense of mono no aware, making it a popular choice.

Suzumushi (Homoeogryllus japonicus): Also known as the bell cricket in Japanese culture
Japanese field crickets

Kurotsumatsuyu-mushi (Gryllus bimaculatus): Commonly known as the field cricket, this species is recognized for its loud and persistent chirping. The kurotsumatsuyu-mushi's robust song made it a favorite for those who enjoyed more vigorous and resonant cricket calls and would like to bring the atmosphere of summer into their winter homes.

Matsumushi (Xenogryllus marmoratus): also known as the pine cricket, the matsumushi has a distinctive, softer chirp that resembles the sound of pine needles rustling in the wind. This subtle and gentle song was appreciated for its soothing nature.

Kanemushi (Gryllus campestris): Known as the black cricket in Japanese culture
Japanese black crickets

Kanemushi (Gryllus campestris): Known as the black cricket, the kanemushi produces a deep, resonant chirp. Its powerful and melodic song made it a valued pet for those who preferred a rich and profound sound.

Current Status of Keeping Crickets as Pets in Japan

Even after the Edo period, people continued keeping crickets as pets. By the late 19th century, the demand for insects had greatly risen. During Emperor Showa's era in Japan, bug dealers thrived. It became common to see street vendors selling insects and peddlers with baskets offering grasshoppers and other bug-related items in the summer. It was mentioned in the memoirs of Western travelers to Japan during that period.

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Unfortunately, after the war, the practice of keeping crickets as pets rapidly decreased in popularity. In 1985, insects like black beetles, pine beetles, cane flycatchers, and grasshoppers were still available for purchase, but only in limited places. Since the war, there is an increase in the number of Japanese people living in cities without regular contact with insects during the summer. Due to the lack of close contact with nature during their childhood, the tradition of insects as pets sounds very foreign to many Japanese. 

Today, it is uncommon even for older Japanese individuals to keep crickets as pets, and only few historical enthusiasts keep the tradition still alive. Those who do still keep crickets as pets are often seen as eccentric or nostalgic, holding onto a piece of their childhood that is rapidly disappearing from modern Japanese society. The sound of chirping crickets on a summer evening has become a rarity in many urban areas, replaced by the hum of air conditioners and the bustle of city life. As the connection between humans and nature continues to dwindle, the tradition of keeping insects as pets may soon become nothing more than a distant memory for the people of Japan.


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