The Firefly and the Trout: Recent Shifts Regarding the Relationship Between People and other Animals in Japanese Culture

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Scholars of Japan like to point out that the Japanese are interested in tamed (miniature trees, ikebana, gardens) as opposed to wild nature, and that for the Japanese, culture and nature are not mutually exclusive concepts. Moreover, there hardly seems to be any direct relationship between the Japanese sensitivity to nature and Japanese environmental behaviour. Bearing these general assumptions in mind, this paper analyzes the changes in the relationship between the Japanese and animals through two recent movements in Japan: firefly protection and fly fishing.

This study is based on interviews and participant observation among several firefly protection groups in the Kansai area from 1989 to 1997, among fly-fishing fishermen, and in fishing cooperatives of Gifu prefecture since 1997. In order to ascertain tendencies regarding new shifts in attitudes toward animals, specific observations regarding each of these issues will be disregarded so as to deal only with the commonalities. The similarities between the movements are indeed striking. Traditionally caught by the thousands, and released in houses and gardens for people's enjoyment, fireflies play a role in linking humans with what the Japanese call "close nature." The firefly image is also very conspicuous in poetry and art. But the firefly population declined in the 1950s, and they are now being protected through drastic legal and social policies, partly influenced by Western environmentalism. The issue of firefly protection is entangled in a criss-cross of interests involving environmental concerns, urban renewal policies and the revival of depopulated rural areas, for which the firefly has become a widely used symbol. At the same time, the movement for firefly protection is highly critical of the traditional ways of dealing with fireflies. Similarly, despite the existence of a traditional Japanese method of "fly-fishing" (tenkara), the recent fly fishing boom seems to be the result of environmental trends such as the "outdoor boom," and the "catch and release" method.

The introduction of a new fishing technique and the emergence of a consciousness and a commitment to protect fauna and flora disrupted the complex traditional relationship between humans and certain species of animals in both cases. And in both cases, the new approach to nature provoked a strong "cultural resistance" to the loss of the specific Japanese way of dealing with animals. Like "woodpigeon hunting" in southern France, or the whaling issue in other cultural areas, these phenomena appear to be symptomatic of the opposition between tradition(al culture) and environmental concerns. Indeed, the objectification of nature that underscores environmental concern is only possible through a distancing from nature, in which people differentiate and disassociate themselves from other animals… a very "un-Japanese" idea.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 1999

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