A Taste of Insect Atlas( 2012.8.1[Wed.])


  I often mention Mr. O of Rokko Insectarium in these pages, and it goes without saying that he has spent many years collecting his specimens, so I suppose it will not surprise anyone that a book has served as his vade mecum through the years – in his case, it was the “Color Atlas of the Lepidopterans of Japan, Expanded Edition” (Genshoku Nihon Chorui Zukan; Hoikusha 1954, 1962 printing; edited by Ezaki Teizo, written by Yokoyama Mitsuo). His copy is barely intact, with both covers detached and even many of the pages reduced to loose individual sheaves, but he refuses to buy a replacement, keeping his constant companion in in an equally ancient and foxing cardboard box. Despite its frail condition, he turns to it relentlessly, poring over its pages on a daily basis before wrapping it again in the rubber bands keeping spine and leaf together.

  In fact, I also have a copy of the same book, the 1961 printing (pictured), as well as the fully updated edition from 1976 (edited by Shirouzu Takashi and written by Kawazoe Akito and Wakabayashi Morio). But despite having the newer edition, there is no way I could let the older one go. For despite bearing the same title, these are very different sorts of work indeed.

  Just what are “the lepidopterans of Japan”? It is a trickier question than it might seem. The geographical extent of the country has changed continually, first in the pre- and post-war periods, then again with the return of Okinawa. On top of that, many an errant butterfly finds itself carried to our shores by the winds of a typhoon. Indeed, insects in general are always changing their patterns of distribution and emergence. Things are complicated even further by the occasional bogus anecdote or fanciful legend, complete with photographic evidence, that so often makes the rounds. By bogus, of course, I mean bogus only once it has been debunked; before that it is frequently embraced as cold, hard, documented fact. So although newer editions may appear, it often takes only a few years for them to become outdated or inaccurate. Perhaps that is true of all pictorial atlases in zoology. But so long as these continue to be produced in the scientific spirit, it seems inevitable that each newer version will be generally better than its predecessor.

  What then of the 1954 edition? I found my copy at an antiquarian bookseller in Jimbocho, Tokyo. The price was reasonable, but what’s more it includes, almost unthinkably, information on Parnassius bremeri aino, a legendary Japanese butterfly. But Mr. O says that there is more to the book than just a historical record of changes in Japanese butterflies. He points to the descriptive entry on Byasa alcinous as an example.

  “As the name might suggest, the males of this species releases a lovely aroma. The females are dusky in color, and both sexes bear half-moon markings on their lower tails, which may be either red or orange, giving them a tropical appearance. Fluttering its wing tails, its gentle floats on warm, gentle breezes dancing across the flower tops, almost like a courtesan (its name in Japanese, (jako ageha – yamajoro, means “mountain courtesan swallowtail”).

  Flawed, but lovely... The 1976 edition is much improved its coverage of distribution and habitat, diet, distinguishing genders, and describing variants, but at the sacrifice of literary quality. The essence of the two books is utterly different, and the changes cannot be dismissed simply as meretricious. At some level, deciding just what kind of a butterfly B. alcinous is comes down to a subjective impression, even if it not scientifically accurate, stricto sensu. As a person living in the Japanese literary tradition, I want the information about how this insect featured in our culture retained, such as how it was called Okiku-mushi, after the name of the tragic woman murdered in the old ghost story Bancho Sara Yashiki.

   Thus, the 1954 edition of the color atlas is like a natural history museum with a deeply literary sensibility, in very different creature than its 1976 successor. Returning to its pages, I am struck by the love of insects that the text evokes, recalling several of Herman Hesse’s works. The article on the Asian constable butterfly (Suminagashi), Dichorragia nesimachus, begins, “Although it may look like a tropical breed with aspirations to making its home in Japan, this species has already spread from Kyushu to as far north as Aomori, although it yet remains a stranger to Hokkaido,” calling to mind nothing so much as an announcement from Imperial HQ during the war years. “...with wing patterns similar to the indigo Satsuma gasuri, one can detect this hails from sultry climes.” It’s the language of the kimono. Their description of Nymphalis io geisha is striking as well.

  “With its pupil-like spots and circles akin to the wings of a bird from some southern isle, the glossy dark beauty of this butterfly as reflected in both the species name denoting a fair maiden of Greek myth, and the geisha of its subspecies name, seems somehow almost alien to our land.”

  Clearly these passages are written not for the scientist in his laboratory, but for the dedicated amateur, reflecting how the creature looked and felt when held up to an incandescent light before being tucked away as a keepsake in its specimen case.

  I have written before of the position of natural history in the contentious space between science and literature, and I feel that the authors of original work sensed and embraced this in their writing on both the scientific and the cultural significance of their subjects. I suppose Mr. O has a similar philosophy, welcoming not only those of a scientific bent, but sightseers and curiosity seekers of all sorts wandering the back streets of Kitano. He has collected his cases of insects to decorate and sell in his shop, and thus he chooses them with an eye more for how they will fit into the lived spaces we humans inhabit than for their scientific value. It is as if he is asking “What fashion will this insect go well with?” Now I understand even better why he refuses to replace his worn old copy of that treasured tome.