4 June, Katsuhiko Takahashi

文字数 4,759文字

Insect Day


I didn’t know that June 4th was Insect Day in Japan. I’m sure most people don’t, since it’s not an official public holiday. Take

mu

from the Japanese word for six and

shi

from the word for four; put them together and you get

mushi

, the word for insect. Naming a day like this was probably the result of wordplay, but if you’re going to do that, why not go with the

mushi

that means selfless, and make it a day when people give up their pleasures and desires to devote themselves to other things; or

mushi

as in ignore, a day to prioritize personal and family happiness; or

mushi

meaning no deaths in hope there will be medical advances, no traffic accidents, and violence is eliminated, which I’m sure would appeal to many people; but to choose

mushi

as in insect seems like a bit of a joke. This kind of witticism would not be appreciated in other countries, since it’s Japanese wordplay. But that might simply be my ignorance; somewhere in the world there may very well be a country with an Insect Appreciation Day. When it comes to insects, there are a dizzying number of types, most of which are regarded as anathema, since the majority of insects are pests and less than five percent are useful to humans.
  Where did the term

mushi

for insect come from in the first place? Though I did some research into its linguistic roots, I still can’t say I really understand. I learned that the Japanese character used for

mushi

is a pictographic symbol derived from the word

mamushi

, or viper. And since the

ma

in

mamushi

probably means genuine, I know that in ancient times vipers were regarded as your typical

mushi

. There is also evidence that snakes were once called long insects. However, snakes are reptiles, and very different from the kind of creatures we picture as insects—cockroaches, flies, and ladybugs being the kinds of things that spring to mind most readily. The word used for insects of the six-legged variety is not

mushi

, but

konchu

. Originally, these types of insects were identified by the character

chu

, and clearly classified as different from

mushi

. The

chu

character—a pictogram composed of a pyramid of three

mushi

symbols—most likely derives from the tendency of tiny creatures to flock together. However, as the number of characters incorporating the

mushi

symbol in them increased, the distinction between

mushi

and

chu

began to blur. Or so it is hypothesized; it is still not clear etymologically how

chu

came to be called

mushi

in the first place. But after consulting various dictionaries and references, I hit on a theory that seems plausible. This theory draws on the roots of the character for

muné

, meaning chest. Because the chest is packed with the heart and other vital organs, it is the most important part of the body for all animals. In other words, it is the core part of an animal’s body. There is speculation that the word for chest, which we now pronounce as

muné

, was once pronounced

miné

, and written using a combination of two characters that mean the center of the body; then, over time, the pronunciation of this word evolved into

muné

. This seems quite plausible. If that is the case, there is a good chance that the

mu

in

mushi

derives from

muné

. And this would then lead to the possibility that the

shi

in

mushi

stems from the

shi

in

ashi

(leg). It makes sense, because insects’ most distinguishing feature is the number of legs emerging from their chests.
  I felt pleased at having made a new discovery. Never in my life would I have thought about this question if today were not Insect Day.


Translated by Alison Watts/Arranged by TranNet KK

Katsuhiko Takahashi
Born in Iwate Prefecture, 1947. Graduated from Waseda University. Won the Edogawa Rampo Prize in 1983 for

The

Case

of

the

Sharaku

Murders

, the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers in 1986 for

Sōmondani

(Sōmon valley), the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel in 1987 for

Hokusai

satsujin

jiken

(The case of the Hokusai murders), and the Naoki Prize in 1992 for

Akai

kioku

(Scarlet memory). The Ezo quadrilogy, consisting of

Kaze

no

jin

(Battle of wind),

Kaen

(Burning grudge) which won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for Literature,

Homura

tatsu

(Rising flames), and

Ten

o

tsuku

(Sky high), is regarded as his crowning achievement. His other works include the Kanshirō hirome tebikae (Kanshirō’s Hirome memos) and Damashie (Trompe l’oeil) series as well as

Ryū

no

hitsugi

(The dragon’s coffin),

Kajō

(Castle of fire), and

Tokimune

among others.

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