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Insects in Art

A nation’s emblem
Hokusai Katsushika, <i>Chinese Bellflowers and Dragonfly</i>, about 1830-31, color woodblock print
zoom Hokusai Katsushika, Chinese Bellflowers and Dragonfly, about 1830-31, color woodblock print


In Japan, the dragonfly is a national emblem. In fact, Japan used to be called Akitsushima, or Dragonfly Island. The long, rainy summer season and numerous rivers and streams provide ideal living conditions for dragonflies, which spend the early stages of their life in the water. More than 190 dragonfly species can be found in Japan.

In Japanese culture, the dragonfly has many meanings. It symbolizes the summer season, success, victory, happiness, strength, and courage. Long ago, Japanese farmers believed the presence of dragonflies in their fields meant an abundant rice harvest. Among the samurai, or warrior class, the dragonfly was a favorite emblem for decorating armor and helmets. Throughout the homes of noblemen, dragonfly images appeared in paintings and on porcelain, furniture, and fabrics.

The mythical creature Shoryo Tombo (Dragonfly of the Dead) is associated with the Japanese festival Bon. During this Buddhist festival, people honor their ancestors. The spirits of the dead, carried by Shoryo Tombo, return home to be reunited with their families.

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1. Their rich symbolism made dragonflies popular subjects for artists and writers.
2. For many centuries, catching dragonflies was a popular summer pastime among Japanese children. Children had to be creative to catch the quick-moving insect.


March 2006