35 Insects in Japanese and Their Role in Japanese Culture
“Wow, that’s huge!”
I remember thinking this when I saw a cicada for the first time in the countryside of Japan.
I volunteered on farms and in bed & breakfasts throughout all of Japan’s major regions for a few years, so there was no shortage of insect life for me to engage with and shudder at.
These interactions with insects in Japan made it easier for me to memorize the vocab. After all, from culture to everyday life, insects are an integral part of the Japanese experience.
Let’s go on an insect hunt and learn the Japanese words for our crawly friends.
- Japanese Words for Insects
- Common Japanese Insects
- Japanese Household Insects
- Other Creepy-Crawlies in Japanese
- Words and Phrases for Talking About Insects
- Insects and Japanese Culture
Japanese Words for Insects
In Japanese, the word for “insects” is 昆虫 (こんちゅう), while the more general term that includes some other small creatures, like worms and bugs, is mushi — 虫 (むし). Below are 35 common insects and bugs you’ll find in Japan, as well as 24 phrases and words that you can use to speak about them.
I’ve had plenty of Japanese people respond with laughter or surprise when I drop an insect term in conversation fluidly. It’s not often that foreigners speak of these slimy creatures!
Common Japanese Insects
Let’s start with some basic insect words. These are common bugs you’ll find in nature—or in your home.
コオロギ (こおろぎ) — cricket
Crickets have been kept as pets in Japan for centuries, complete with elaborate cages. Crickets represent good luck and fortune, but also autumn and the cycle of life.
ハエ (はえ) — fly
ツクツクホウシ (つくつくほうし) — mayfly
バッタ (ばった) — grasshopper/locust
Grasshoppers were also historically kept as pets in Japan, but they’re also considered a delicious treat!
ハチ (はち) — bee
蜜蜂 (みつばち) — honeybee
蝉 (せみ) — cicada
There are about 30 types of cicadas in Japan, many with their own version of the easily-recognizable call. Cicadas represent summer and youth and you can often hear them in the background to set the scene in anime and other elements of pop culture.
スズメバチ (すずめばち) — wasp/hornet
トンボ (とんぼ) — dragonfly
ホタル (ほたる) — firefly
Fireflies in Japanese culture are often seen to be the souls of soldiers who died in war. An excellent look at this analogy (and an excellent movie) is the classic “Grave of the Fireflies.” A must-watch!
甲虫類 (こちゅうるい) — beetle
テントウムシ (てんとうむし) — ladybug
ヤマビル (やまびる) — mountain leech
While you might associate leeches with water, the Japanese mountain leech lives comfortably on land and can even climb on trees and fall down onto you!
They can get under your clothes and hide in your shoes. Ick! Hikers in Japan are often given bags of salt or salt water to put in their shoes to keep mountain leeches away.
蛾 (が) — moth
クワガタ (くわがた) — stag beetle
カブトムシ (かぶとむし) — Rhinoceros beetle
Rhinoceros beetles are kept as pets and used to fight in Pokemon-style battles. It might sound silly, but it’s pretty serious to this day: There are livestreams and tournaments (with good money placed on them) of the fighting beetles, many of which are smuggled into the country.
毛虫 (けむし) — caterpillar
チョウ (ちょう) — butterfly
Japanese Household Insects
Many bugs love to make themselves comfortable inside homes! Here are the most common household insects in Japan:
アリ (あり) — ant
蚊 (か) — mosquito
ゴキブリ (ごきぶり) — cockroach
クサギカメムシ (くさぎかめむし) — stink bug
ダニ (だに) — tick/mite/bed bug
Other Creepy-Crawlies in Japanese
These other insects and related creatures can show up in a wide variety of places:
クモ (くも) — spider
ムカデ (むかで) — centipede
ゲジゲジ (げじげじ) — house centipede
ヤモリ (やもり) — gecko
蚕 (かいこ) — silkworm
ブヨ (ぶよ) — black fly
ノミ (のみ) — flea
蟷螂 (かまきり) — praying mantis
シロアリ (しろあり) — termite
カタツムリ (かたつむり) — snail
ミミズ (みみず) — earthworm
ナメクジ (なめくじ) — slug
Words and Phrases for Talking About Insects
Got those insect words down? Great! Here are some phrases that you can use to talk about them!
嫌だ！ (いやだ！) — “Disgusting!”
かっこいい！ — “Cool!”
あれはなに？ — “What is that thing?”
これは何という虫ですか？ (これはなんというむしですか？) — “What is this insect called?”
虫は気持ち悪くない？ (むしはきもちわるくない？) — “Aren’t insects creepy?”
虫は面白くない？ (むしはおもしろくない？) — “Aren’t insects interesting?”
虫を食べたことある？ (むしをたべたことある？) — “Have you eaten an insect before?”
どんな虫が好きですか？ (どんなむしがすきですか？) — ”What insects do you like?”
虫は苦手なんです。 (むしはにがてなんです。) — ”I don’t like insects.”
うわぁ、大きいですね！ (うわぁ、おおきいですね！) — “Wow, this bug is huge!”
キッチンに虫がいる！ (きっちんにむしがいる！) — “There are some bugs in the kitchen!”
Related Japanese Words
Use these when you want to get a little more descriptive about our insect friends:
クモの巣 (くものす) — spiderweb
蟻塚 (ありづか) — anthill
蜂蜜 (はちみつ) — honey
甘蜜 (かんみつ) — nectar
蜂巣 (はちす) — beehive
羽 (はね) — wing
飛ぶ (とぶ) — to fly
羽ばたく (はばたく) — to flap wings or flutter
針 (はり) — sting, needle
噛む (かむ) — to bite
刺す (さす) — to sting, prick
刺される (さされる) — to get bitten, stung
毒 (どく) — poison, venom
Insects and Japanese Culture
The Bond Between Children and Insects
It’s no coincidence that you see children in Ghibli movies, anime and manga running around outside with insects flying around them in absolute peace. Japanese culture is closely tied to nature. The language, customs and food are connected to the seasons and all the change they bring.
Part of that change is insects.
Children spend their summers in small creeks and in forests running around trying to catch dragonflies. They hop around trying to catch stink bugs to stick on their friends. Others bottle beetles as part of their school assignments.
Children and insects are inseparable in Japan. You’ll find it much easier to remember the names of these insects if you picture the obligatory kid presenting it in your favorite Japanese program. Visualize the hand, the voice and the response of the other character. The words will never leave your brain.
Insects in Houses
If you come to Japan, you’ll find that many of these insects love spending time in the house. They frequent your walls and tatami mat as if they were invited as honorable guests.
Whether your first reaction is to delicately scoop it up to gently release through your window or stomp it out of existence, ensure that you say the insect’s name aloud before making a move. This experience will stick with you as time passes. You’ll soon find that you can instinctively say their names the next time you meet—which will inevitably come.
I’ve found that, among others, the most common insects you can find in countryside houses in Japan include cockroaches, mosquitos, stink bugs, ants and centipedes.
All of the above (except for the last one) are relatively harmless. You’ll encounter them on a weekly basis, and you can tell the locals have essentially made them long-term house guests. No matter how clean or dry you keep your house, they’ll find a way to get in.
Centipedes, though, you do need to watch out for. This one can send you to the hospital if you’re not careful and, in some rare instances, it can even lead to severe complications. That’s why it’s best for you to learn ムカデ ー centipede like the back of your hand before heading out to the countryside!
Insects and Japanese Pop Culture
A lot of Japanese pop culture is based on reality. Often, the places and behaviors you see in your favorite Japanese movies, anime and manga are real. This includes creepy crawlers. After all, what do you think Pokemon are based on?
You can find some intense adaptations of your favorite insects and your most hated enemies in anime. The great thing about bringing these creatures to life on the screen is that it helps those words stick in your brain. Intense fights, language and triumphant music all serve to make your memories 3D and long-lasting:
Find insects in the list above that you’ve seen in Japanese movies, anime or manga before. Try to pinpoint the exact scene, characters and dialogue. If you have trouble remembering, pop one of these words into your search bar with the title of the Japanese show. You might find that, the more rapidly you try to bolster words with real-life details and experiences, the easier it is to remember and use them in a conversation.
Why Katakana for Most Insect Names
You might notice that many of the insect words on our list are written in katakana. No, they’re not all loan-words (or sound effects). Rather, it’s a common custom to write the names of animals, insects and plants in katakana, even if they have a kanji version. For instance, you might have learned that you can write “dog” as 犬 or いぬ, but you’re just as likely to see it written as イヌ, instead.
In fact, many of the kanji for animals, insects and plants are so complicated that it’s just easier to write them in katakana rather than try to write or even recognize the difficult kanji.
Now you have the basic vocab and creepy emotions that come with meeting insects in Japanese. As long as you treat these crawlers with the same respect children in Japan are taught, you’ll be on your way to a vivid recollection and one small step closer to fluency.