Popular bugs cause controversy in Japan

Japan is a nation in the throes of beetlemania, where the insects are more popular than dogs and cats. Almost every child in Japan, at one time or another, has kept live rhinoceros or stag beetles as pets. But how maniacal does it get? How much is a beetle worth?

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... by Maury M. Breecher, Ph.D.
... in the Whoa! section
... from November 18, 1999

Beetle prices vary according to species and size. The Australian Financial Review states that your basic 30-millimeter female stag beetle sells for about $20, but "once into the heavyweight category, they take off," with prices ranging from $400 for a 74-millimeter male to $700 for a 75-millimeter specimen.

Recently there's been a controversy about a Japanese executive who reportedly spent $95,000 (10 million yen) for a giant stag beetle. This high-priced "black diamond" beetle was said to be over 80 millimeters in length (approximately 3.2 inches) according to Japan's Mainichi Daily News.

"I don't think that's expensive. After all, there's never been one this large sold in Japan before," says Takamasa Suzuki, owner of Waku Waku Land (translation: "Thrill Land") in Tokyo, the insect store which allegedly sold the beetle.

Although the news media has sought to identify the free-spending beetle-loving business executive, he remains anonymous. Suzuki says the buyer wants to keep his identity a secret because he is afraid of "bug-nappers."

Skeptics from the Japanese press believe the sale was a hoax, staged to drive up the price of large stag beetles. And insect industry analysts see the $95,000 sale as a publicity stunt. These suspicions are credible. Besides the outrageous price, several television crews were "coincidentally" at the store when the privacy-seeking customer arrived to pick up his prize. (Why camera crews didn't determine the anonymous executive's identity remains a mystery.)

This Machine is Bugged

Another recent manifestation of Japanese beetlemania is also causing some controversy. Live beetles are being sold from vending machines. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. Everything from blue jeans to beer to sake and dried squid has been sold from those devices. Now the Japanese firm Future Precision Industry claims to be the first to sell living critters in such machines. Customers deposit 400 yen to receive a pair of live beetles.

Conservation groups in Japan are up in arms over beetle vending. "We want the practice stopped. Treating living creatures in the same way as soft drinks and cigarettes sets a terrible example for children," Aki Shiotsubo, of the Citizens' Group to Preserve Nature and Protect Animals, told the Guardian's Tokyo reporter Jonathan Watts.

Japanese beetle-lovers take the development matter-of-factly.

"It was quite natural that sooner or later someone would come up with the idea of selling those bugs in a vending machine," says Sho Endo. However, because the machines have to be temperature and moisture-controlled and serviced every day, the beetle-loving Web page designer and translator believes that they too are a kind of "publicity stunt."

"It's really questionable if it pays to set up such machines. Beetles are certainly popular but as a daily commodity they are nothing compared to [the sales of] Coca-Cola and cigarettes."

See also: Bugging Out

Dr. Breecher is the co-author of two books, Healthy Homes in a Toxic World and Live Longer Better.