Fireflies in Japanese Art

Fireflies are especially beloved in Japan, where they’ve provided a rich source of art  

Drab brown beetles by day and captivating sparks by night, fireflies have long fascinated humans, inspiring scientists to probe the secrets of bioluminescence. In Japan, where they are known as ‘hotaru’, they are particularly revered: a metaphor for passionate love in poetry, they are also thought to hold the souls of fallen soldiers. Countless Japanese woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1603–1867) capture the delight of children and adults practising the popular hobby of ‘hotaru-gari’ (firefly hunting) near streams. Many depict elegant young women in kimonos equipped with fans and boxes for catching the fireflies.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), when thousands of fireflies decorated the night sky, firefly tourism boomed – city-dwellers flocking to the country to admire their beauty. It soon morphed into commercial firefly hunting: fireflies were the height of fashion, and worth good money. Firefly wholesalers set up shop in well-known firefly haunts such as Moriyama, with hunters capable of capturing up to three thousand fireflies per night. In the morning, they’d send the night’s catch to clients in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, where fireflies were used to adorn hotels, restaurants, and gardens, city-dwellers marvelling at their luminous beauty.  

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), hailed as the last major ukiyo-e artist – a style of woodblock print and painting from the Edo period favouring romantic landscapes and glamorous city life – captured the rapid modernisation and Westernisation Japan underwent during the Meiji period. His ‘Fireflies at Ochanomizu’ (1880, below) depicts the hidden reaches of a river where a boat’s cabin is illuminated by lantern light. All around fireflies punctuate the background – and at the work’s heart a constellation of fireflies lights up the sky: one of nature’s oldest ways of lighting the world raised to a mythological level. The city encroaching in the distance makes the fireflies a potent symbol of a past fast flickering out.  

As recently as the nineteen fifties, however, fireflies could still be seen milling in the air above farms – children chasing them with thin paper bags that became natural lanterns. Holding the lanterns aloft, they sang the famous ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ – a nineteenth century ditty reprising the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, often sung at graduation. The lyrics describe the hardships of a young student studying by the light of fireflies because he lacks a lamp: ‘Light of fireflies, moonlit snow by the window. Many suns and moons spent reading. Before one knows it, years have passed. The door we resolutely open; this morning, we part ways.’

The firefly’s light has been dimmed by modern pesticide use, light pollution, and habitat loss – but contemporary artists have picked up the baton, using the species to stimulate the imagination and make us look at climate change anew. Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water (2002), one of numerous infinity-mirrored rooms created by the celebrated Japanese artist, is filled with dancing LED lights that digitally recreate the wonder of fireflies. In 2005, her whimsical You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies took inspiration from an old Japanese folktale involving a man who is robbed on a pilgrimage. In the tale, thousands of fireflies (embodying the soul) attack the man’s assailants. Such works inspire us to try to grapple with the present – to make sure the firefly’s light doesn’t die out.

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