I am standing in the cottage in the south of France where the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre was born in 1823. Cooking utensils and a rosary hang on the wall. Through the window, the whitewashed village just beyond glows in the morning light.
Or so it seems. We are actually in the basement of a sleek building in downtown Tokyo. The view through the window is a cleverly lit painting in a hallway that leads to the rest of the Fabre Insect Museum.
Fabre would have found modern Tokyo harrowing: in 36 years, he never even visited the village neighbouring the rural estate where he spent his retirement. Yet it is the Japanese who remember Fabre best. In other parts of the world, only entomologists keep his memory alive, but here most people know his name, and many have read essays from his classic series, Souvenirs entomologiques (1879-1907). He is so well-known that 7‑Eleven convenience stores in Japan gave away Fabre-themed plastic figurines as part of a soft-drink promotion in 2005. One depicted the man himself. Another, a plastic dung beetle, complete with dung.
‘A vain wish has often come to me in my dreams,’ Fabre wrote in The Glow Worm and Other Beetles (1919). ‘It is to be able … to see the world with the faceted eyes of a Gnat.’ In Japan, Fabre found an audience with similar aspirations. Insects have been celebrated in Japanese culture for centuries. ‘The Lady Who Loved Insects’ is a classic story of a caterpillar-collecting lady of the 12th century court; the Tamamushi, or ‘Jewel Beetle’ Shrine, is a seventh century miniature temple, once shingled with 9,000 iridescent beetle forewings.
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