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Relationships with Nature: The Firefly
The Role of the "Hotaru" in Japanese Society
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Kanji character for "Firefly"

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What is the role of fireflies in your society?

The Japanese word for a firefly is "hotaru." Click here to learn the kanji character for it. In some cultures hotaru might not have a positive reputation, but they are well liked in Japanese society. They have been a metaphor for passionate love in poetry since Man'you-shu (the 8th century anthology). Their eerie lights are also thought to be the altered form of the souls of soldiers who have died in war.

It is popular to view the fireflies' glow during hot summer nights (hotaru-gari). However, since hotaru inhabit only clean streams, their numbers have been decreasing in recent years due to pollution.

"Hotaru no Hikari (The Light of the Firefly)" is probably one of the most popular Japanese songs. It is often sang when bidding farewell to one another such as at graduation ceremonies, the closing ceremony of events, and the end of the year. This tune comes from the Scottish folk song "Auld Lang Syne," which doesn't mention fireflies at all. It is just that the poetic Japanese words somehow fit the melody of the song.

There is also a children's song titled "Hotaru Koi (Come Firefly)." Check out the lyrics in Japanese.

"Keisetsu-jidadi" which literally translates into "the era of the firefly and snow," means one's student days. It derives from the Chinese folklore and refers to studying in the glow of the fireflies and snow by the window. There is also an expression "Keisetsu no kou" which means "the fruits of diligent study."

This is a rather newly invented word, but "hotaru-zoku (firefly tribe)" refers to the people (mainly husbands) forced to smoke outside. There are many tall apartment buildings in the cities, which usually have small balconies. From a distance the light of cigarette outside the curtained window looks like the glow of a firefly.

"Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies)" is the Japanese animated film (1988) which is based on autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. It follows the struggles of two orphans during the American firebombing at the end of World War II.

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