It was early summer, the air still damp from the rain. I wiped the sweat from the back of my neck and started to wonder what had woken me. Pssshhhhh thump. Pssshhhhh thump. It was five in the morning, and the sound, like any sound at that time of day, was deafening. Reaching for the light, I searched in vain for a burglar, an out-of-control machine or a lost drummer boy. In desperation, I began to tear up the bedding, rifle behind the curtains, throw piles of books across the table. Just as I was about to give up, I saw a plastic bag, abandoned for a week, twitch on my tatami. Pssshhhhh thump. Pssshhhhh thump. I lifted up the bag and watched a small, green frog, about the size of my thumb, hop contentedly across the room.
Imprisoning it in a glass with little difficulty, I decided to put it outside. But I was more used to dealing with cockroaches, and forgot how soft and vulnerable its little green body would be. Dropping it on the balcony outside, I watched with horror as it bounced away, not in elegant, forward arches, as it previously had, but in a slow, pathetic curve, one of its legs dragging awkwardly behind it. Conscious of the damage I had done, I vowed to investigate these most mysterious and fascinating of creatures. What are they like, how many are there, and haven't Japanese people ever eaten them, even during the war?
The starting point when investigating small bug-like things that live in muddy places is to ask a small boy, so that's what I did. Unfortunately, my local four-year-old insect expert, who rose to international stardom by walking up to the desk at the Igashira Park Butterfly Centre with a book under his arm and saying, "I have come to do some research", didn't know anything about frogs. Forlorn and data-less, I had a look on the internet, and talked to some drunk Japanese people. Here is what I discovered.
Japan has a lot of frogs. The CIA World Handbook1 does not carry specific frog statistics2 but it does reveal that the country has a total land area of 374,744 square kilometres. 67% of this consists of forest and woodland, and there are probably lots of frogs there, but I've never actually seen one so I'll leave them out of my calculations. 11%, however, is arable, and a good ten elevenths must be rice fields, so that makes 37,474.4 square kilometres of frog-friendly paddy. Assuming a minimum rice-field occupancy rate of one frog per square metre, or 1,000 x 1,000 = 1,000,000 frogs per square kilometre, and rounding down to allow for any possible inaccuracies inherent in my method3, I would make a confident minimum estimate of 10 billion frogs. To put this number in perspective, if all the frogs in Japan climbed on top of each other and jumped 5 centimetres each at the same time, the top one would bump his head on the moon4.
Japan is home to several varieties of frog (kaeru 蛙), all of which say "kero, kero". The most common are amagaeru 雨蛙 (literally "rain frogs"), known in English as "tree frogs" or "green frogs", and akakaeru 赤蛙 ("red frogs"). The only other frog I've heard of, the Bullfrog, is less common, and translates, like the English, as ushikaeru 牛蛙. Rain frogs turn up in large numbers after it rains. Red frogs are red. And bullfrogs are imported from overseas to be eaten in expensive French restaurants. But more on this later.
Many Japanese expressions have frogs in them. The English "like father, like son" translates as "蛙の子は蛙" (Kaeru no ko wa kaeru), or "A frog's child is a frog". If you say something and someone completely ignores it, (goes in one ear and out the other, or whatever) that's known as "蛙の面へ水"(Kaeru no tsura e mizu), or "like water on the surface of a frog" (or "off a duck's back", as we might say.) The position of frogs' eyes on the fronts of their heads is also extremely important. Many years ago, a frog asked God to allow him to walk on two legs, like people. His prayer was granted, but his eyes were left facing upwards towards sky, so he couldn't see where he was going and died5.
For the same reason, if two people are trying to meet up but keep missing each other, this is called "蛙の相撲" (kaeru no sumoo, or "frog sumo"). When a man marries an older woman, so he always has to look up to her, she is a "蛙女房" (kaeru nyoubou) or "frog wife".
An alternative word to "kaeru" is "kawazu". This also means "not buy" (買わず）. If you sign a contract to buy something then break the contract, that's called あきがえし (akigaeshi). If you take the two Chinese Characters that make up the word "akigaeshi" (商変) and use their on-yomi instead of their kun-yomi6, you get "shohen", which is a bit like 小便 shoben, which means pee. Apparently if you catch a frog and then it escapes it pees on the floor before it gets away. So if you sign the contract but then don't buy what you were supposed to that's called doing a frog (kawazu)7.
But what about eating frogs? The puzzling thing about this is that there aren't a lot of possible protein sources the Japanese don't eat. They eat roots. They eat things with suckers on. They eat fish that kill you unless you remove the ovaries correctly. For much of Japan's history, eating anything was a matter of survival. During the last days of the war, hungry gangs from the cities roamed the countryside taking anything they could get their hands on. My friend Fumio reports living off soup made from boiled weeds, and lugworms from the rice fields. So what about the nation's 10 billion frogs?
Yes, he says, his brother ate frogs. Red ones.
As a cure for bed-wetting.
I admit I was not entirely convinced. Maybe it's the threat of having to eat red frogs, rather than the frog-consumption itself, which cures bedwetting. But it gets better. It turns out that red frog consumption is efficacious not only against bed-wetting, but also against something called かん (癇) (kan)8. And kan encompasses a very broad range of disorders: irritability, touchiness, and (this is the best one): nervousness.9
Let them eat frogs. Nervous kids? No problem. Simply catch your frog, remove its bowels and fry.10 Your students can be force-fed red frogs either as a batsu game or as a wholesome culturally-traditional warm-up activity. And if we can get them actually developing a taste for their native froggery we might be able to halt the importation of foreign bull frogs and provide a much-needed boost to the economy. Say we sell each of our ten billion frogs for a hundred yen. That will make a total of one trillion yen, enough to pay off all the bad debts of the Ashikaga Bank11.
I complete my investigations at the beginning of Autumn. Creeping through the tall grass, a frog has bounced up onto the edge of my car door. As I turn into the lane and gather speed, he leaps in through the open window. He pauses to admire his reflection in the mirror. Then, he hops onto the windscreen wiper lever, across my hand, over the steering wheel and onto the dashboard. As I slow down for the traffic lights, another frog emerges on the other side of the window, only to duck back into his shelter as I start to accelerate. We gaze out through the mist.
They look delicious.
1. available at http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html [back]
2. These are classified on grounds of national security. [back]
3. Poking around in a rice field with a stick. [back]
4. Possibly. [back]
5. Frogs often get too big for themselves. This transcends cultures. There's a French poem about a frog that wants to be as big as a cow and puffs itself up until it bursts. Yuck. [back]
6. Most Chinese Characters have at least two readings, a Chinese reading or "on-yomi" and a native Japanese reading, or "kun-yomi". The on-yomi is used mainly when two or more characters are joined together to make a word. For example, 車, meaning "car", has a kun-yomi (Japanese reading) of "kuruma", but an on-yomi (Chinese reading) of "sha", as in 自転車 (jitensha) meaning bicycle (literally self-turn-car) or 電車 (densha) meaning train (literally electric car). This is very important.
P.S. Can you guess what a 人力車 (jinrikisha) is? [back]
7. Are you still with me? [back]
8. Kokugo Dai Jiten Dictionary. Shinsou-ban (Revised edition) c Shogakukan 1988.国語大辞典（新装版）c小学館 1988. [back]
9. Progressive Japanese-English Dictionary, Second edition c Shogakukan 1993.プログレッシブ和英中辞典 第2版 c小学館 1993. [back]
10. I'm not sure if this means you have to fry the frog or the bowels, but if you ask an old person they'll probably know. [back]
11. Or at least the ones they're admitting to. [back]