A Run Through the Graveyard of the Fireflies

My headlamp illuminates a hedgerow atop cement foundation, and there are suddenly a pair of eyes fixed on me. Thinking I’ve finally crossed one of the marauding moon bears or boars I’m constantly warned about, I quickly tamp the switch on my headgear. The world goes dark, save the headlights of the rare car that runs through the dirt pathway between the rice paddies. The eyes — like some creature of science fiction that feeds on light, they’ve absorbed the rays of my torch and continue to glow in the darkness.

The bulbs only keep their pose for a moment longer. If this is an animal, its eyes stretch impossibly far apart. As the two specks of bioluminescence dance in the darkness, others join in the revelry. A sentient ember rises from the irrigation ditch; another couple emerge, entwined in something beyond my understanding from a green house. The pulsating population paints pyres across the smooth glass of the surrounding fields. I stumble into the enclave of the firefly.

“See Them While You Can”

Growing up in rural New York, fireflies were fascinating but ultimately mundane parts of my childhood. When a friend offered to take me to a heavily wooded part of Aichi prefecture during my university days — a trip planned with the simple hope of laying eyes on tiny flecks of waltzing flame — I was interested, but I couldn’t understand why the special trip was needed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr's m-louis. Used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s m-louis. Used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The archipelago’s most famous firefly species are named after two warring clans from Japanese history and folklore: the Genji and the Heike. Legend holds that following the Battle of Dannomura in 1185, fallen samurai from both sides were reborn as fireflies. I can’t say how much the story is believed, but as a lover of history and someone who thinks the world is a better place with a touch of magic, it’s fun to entertain.

Immortal souls of fallen bushi or not, fireflies — like so many other creatures — are losing the battle against habitat loss and the mass destruction of industrialized agriculture.  Some modern conservation efforts have proven extremely effective, quadrupling local populations of fireflies. Still, as Japan Times writer Rowan Hooper puts it, fireflies are running out of fuel. You’d do best to “see them while you can.

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