Tag Archives: rhinoceros beetles

More Adventures in Cross-Linguistic Nomeclature – What’s (not) in a name?

10 Oct

I’ve been way too quiet on the blogging front over the last few months.  Finding things to write about can be tricky, especially without a good camera and the time to find that perfect shot, not to mention the weather playing up – we’ve had temperatures fluctuating from hot to cold and back again, and yet another typhoon is brewing as I write this.


That low pressure cell off Hokkaido is the remains of the typhoon that just passed through, and another one is sitting just off the Philippines.

Typhoon – an interesting word.  There is a large body of people here who think that it must be a corruption of the Japanese word taifu (台風), when in fact the reverse is closer to the truth.  While the etymology of the English word is unclear –Persian, Sanskrit and Greek roots have been cited – the modern Japanese word did not appear until after exposure to the English version.


Folk etymology is one thing, but incorrect translations are another, and one that really gets my goat is the definition most Japanese give for “beetle”.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary provides us with this definition:


  • an insect of a large order distinguished by having forewings that are typically modified into hard wing cases (elytra), which cover and protect the hindwings and abdomen.

A disproportionally large number of English-Japanese dictionaries, however, give the translation as meaning “rhinoceros beetle”.  For example, I looked in my little “wordtank” electronic dictionary (I like to think of it as a “wordmoke”) under “beetle”, and it gave the definition as “rhinoceros beetle”.  I then tried Japanese to English – it gave the correct definition for “beetle”, but also gave  the meaning of “rhinoceros beetle” as “beetle”!  It’s a bit like deciding that the word for dog in one language means “golden retriever” in another! 

On English-to-Japanese mode, it gives the definiton as “rhinoceros beetle”…

… but on Japanese-to-English, defines 甲虫 (“beetle”) as…

Even the classic Volkswagen beetle is sometimes given the nickname “kabutomushi” (rhinoceros beetle) thanks to this error. 

Sorry folks, the VW beetle looks like a ladybird.  If you want something that resembles a rhinoceros beetle, I suggest you start looking at tanks!


Incidentally, the Japanese word for beetle is kochu (甲虫), and I wish more Japanese would learn it!!


It’s autumn, and that means chestnuts.  But for English speakers, the word “chestnut” is a rare find.  You see, the Japanese decided to adopt the French word marron when talking about non-traditional chestnut dishes, but think that it’s English.  I remember my early days of English teaching (I already had a firm background in Japanese at the time) and students telling me about “maron”, only to find it didn’t register.  It wasn’t in my vocabulary, it wasn’t in my Japanese-English dictionary… the closest word I knew was the name of an Australian freshwater crayfish!


Regular readers of this blog might remember that the Japanese word for chestnut is kuri (栗). 


Now it’s time to go off and teach some students the words “typhoon”, “rhinoceros beetle” and “chestnut”!

Summer Songs and Beetlemania

17 Sep

The height of summer has passed but the heat and humidity continue.  Still, the evenings have become cooler and pleasant, and there are a few other signs of the changing of the seasons.


In Japan, you can actually hear the shift from mid-summer to early autumn.  Cicadas – possibly the noisiest insect on the planet – are active at different times, depending on the species.

Nymphs ready to metamorphose into adult insects emerge from the soil, climb a convenient tree (or sometimes wall or even telephone pole), split their carapace down the back, and emerge as adults.  They live for just a few weeks at most – conventional folklore has this at one week.

Different cicada species have different songs, so the most numerous species at any given time is the one most heard.  For example, the species Cryptotympana facialis, known as kumazemi (熊蝉), is most common during the hottest part of August, whereas the large brown cicada (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata) or aburazemi (油蝉) and Meimuna opalifera, otherwise known as tsukutsukuboshi (つくつく法師 or 寒蝉) are the predominant singers now.


Cicadas provide hours of fun for school boys, who idle away summer holiday time catching them, sometimes for school research projects.  Being able to identify different species of cicada is a source of pride for fathers, although kids are becoming less and less interested in cicadas and more interested in pokemon.



Two other insects receive celebrity status during the summmer holidays – stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles.  On summer evenings, it is not unusual to see small groups of boys or father and son pairs treck into local groves and around shrines, insect cages in hand, looking for these beetles.

Pitting males against each other is a time-honoured tradition, although in recent years breeding has become more fashionable – and I think it is much better than city kids just buying beetles.  Believe it or not, home centres, pet shops and even department stores sell beetles.

A few years ago there was a boom in exotic beetle species, aided along by video games, trading cards and a cartoon series, where owning the largest and most powerful beetles in the world was a real status symbol.  Some speecies could claim prices going into the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of yen.



Japan is home to nearly 40 species of stag beetle, and several of these are commonly found in my area.  They all come under the generic term kuwagatamushi (鍬形虫).

Both the English and Japanese names refer to the large mandibles found on males – the English compares it to a male deer’s antlers, the Japanese compares it to the decorations on a warrior’s helmet (although “kuwa” could also refer to a mattock).

Some species live for just one year, while others can live for two or even three.  The latter group includes the Okuwagata (大鍬形), the largest and most sought-after of the stag beetles.  Unfortunately, it is listed as a vunerable species due to loss of habitat and cross-breeding with imported beetles.


For most boys (of all ages), however, the “king” of the beetles is the Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma or Trypoxylus dichotomus).  The local name, kabutomushi (兜虫) is again a reference to part of a warrior’s gear, in this case the helmet (although sometimes the characters 甲虫 are used, refering to armour).  Reaching sizes over 50 mm, it is the largest beetle found in temperate Japan.

A large male, with my hand for size comparison.

Up close and personal with a male rhinoceros beetle.

These beetles have a one year life cycle.


The business end of a male. He uses this “horn” to remove rivals from food and potential mates.



As an English teacher, I get frustrated by the habit of translating “rhinoceros beetle” as simply “beetle”.  I have found this in many dictionaries and is yet another hard-wired mistake I would like to see on the extinctions list!


Both rhinoceros and stag beetles feed on the sap of oak trees, particularly the sawtooth oak or kunugi (Quercus acutissima), and lay their eggs in the leaf-litter soil around it or in its rotting wood.  The larvae hatch and feed on rotting wood and leaves, although some species may canibalise.  They moult several times before becoming winged adults, which emerge in the summer, ready to start the cycle again.

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