Singing Orthoptera in Japanese Culture

by Robert W. Pemberton, USDA-ARS
3205 College Ave. Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33314

The Japanese have a long tradition of enjoying the calls of various Orthoptera, both in the wild and as caged pets (Lafcadio Hern, 1905, Exotics and Retrospectives, Little, Brown and Co., Boston). These customs have been popular with both the Japanese Court, which probably introduced some of the customs from China, and with the common people. Visiting places, known for the abundance and high quality of their singing insects, was one of the seasonal pleasures, such as cherry blossom and autumn leaf viewing. Although many of these customs have been lost or simplified with Japan’s modernization, there remains a fondness for the “cries” of certain species of crickets (Gryllidae) and long-horned grasshoppers (Tettigonidae). The following illustrations and notes show various aspects of Japan’s cricket culture.

“The cricket cage peddlar“, Kiyonaga, ca. late 1700s, (courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago). Cricket sellers were members of an organized guild recognized by the checkerboard motif used on the cloth of their stands and kimonos. These mobile merchants sold diverse and beautifully crafted cages, including ones that resembled fans, boats and country cottages, to house the singing insects. The singing insects of commerce were both reared and collected from the wild.

 Shanghai Cricket Cage Peddlar

Cricket cage made of twigs, wire and the sheath of a bamboo shoot, ca. 1950 (courtesy of Kyushu-Tokai Univ.). This wire mesh type of cage was used for smaller crickets. The finely crafted cages of the past are now rarely made; most modern cages are clear plastic terrariums with ventilated tops. These terrariums are sold to keep and rear a few species of singing Orthoptera (mainly the bell insect, Homoeogryllus japonicus de Haan), which are also sold along with specially packaged bell insect food and soil in pet shops.

Bamboo Cages

A book “How to raise singing insects” written in 1983 by Kimio ONO and Hideaki OGASAWARA (New Science Co., Tokyo). This book, which shows the bell insect (suzumushi) on its cover, contains natural history, rearing information and even poetry on five of the most favored cricket species and one katydid, and briefer sections on fourteen other crickets and katydids. Raising singing insects is a popular past-time. Singing crickets are given as gifts to customers by some produce markets and to the friends of some cricket hobbyists.

How to Raise Singing Insects book

Program for Tama Zoo’s annual autumn show on singing Orthoptera. This very popular show started in 1958 and takes place in Tama Zoo’s Insectarium located in the Tokyo suburbs. At the 1993 show, forty three singing cricket and long-horned grasshopper species could be seen and heard by visitors. Each year, the Insectarium receives several thousand telephone calls from people wanting advice on how to raise singing insects.

Tama Zoo Show flyer

Electronic katydid in a paper covered plastic box cage, 1992, $9 US. The plastic katydid and its electronic chip mimic a popular long-horned grasshopper (kirigirisu, Gampsocleis buergeri de Haan) in both appearance and sound. This cage also features flashing fireflies. Electronic bell insects, including one with a very accurate chip that was sold in a Tokyo Mitsukoshi Department store for $200 US in 1990, are also available. Recordings of singing Orthoptera are sold in record stores, and can be heard in subway stations and other public places.

Electronic Katydid