[Occult] The occult meanings of “mushi” or “bug” in Japanese culture

There is an occult meaning to the word mushi [虫 / 蟲] in Japanese, the nuances of which are lost in its English translation as ‘insect’ or ‘bug’. Here is a translated excerpt* from an article called Mushi ga ii [虫がいい] in a collection of essays Nihongo Omote to Ura [日本語 表と裏] written by the cultural critic Morimoto Tetsurou [森本哲郎] (1925 – 2014) –

The Japanese characterize such mysteries of the heart as mushi. The heart is what one desires, what one thinks and what one feels. Nevertheless, there are times when the heart does not work the way one would like it to. In other words, there is another heart within one’s heart. The Japanese call that ‘second soul’  mushi. It is believed that, of the two, mushi is by far closer to the depth of one’s being. The reason for it is that when one loses consciousness and when one’s breathing weakens, the Japanese call that condition ‘the breath of mushi‘. ‘The breath of mushi‘ means that only the mushi within one’s body is left to do the breathing. In other words, mushi is the last thing that supports one’s life. In that sense, the Japanese concept of mushi is close to Freud’s libido.

In addition, Morimoto provides examples of Japanese idioms that further illustrate the Japanese concept of mushi. For example, ‘mushi’s notification’ [虫の知らせ] means ‘a gut feeling for something inauspicious’.

That is what I had at the back of my mind when I watched the anime Mushishi [蟲師]. In the story, mushi is said to be closer to the source of life than any other lifeforms on earth. They are something between life and death, and between ‘things’ and ‘living beings’. Moreover, they are visible only to those born with the ability to see them.

Mushi from the anime 'Mushishi' - the first season aired between Oct 2005 and Jun 2006, while the second season aired between Apr and Dec 2014

Mushi from the anime ‘Mushishi’ – the first season aired between Oct 2005 and Jun 2006, while the second season aired between Apr and Dec 2014

A search in a Japanese dictionary for words related to mushi also yields interesting results. Ken-dou or the ‘way of the sword’ [剣道] means ‘fencing; Ka-dou or ‘ the ‘way of flowers’ [花道] means ‘the art of flower arrangement’; Sa-dou or the ‘way of tea’ [茶道] means the ‘art of the tea ceremony’. What do you suppose ko-dou or the ‘way of mushi‘ [蠱道] means? Well, it means ‘spellcraft’ – along with synonyms also related to mushi such as ko-jutsu [蠱術] and fuko [巫蠱].

Sinologists such as Shirakawa Shizuka [白川静] (1910 – 2006) have traced the origin of such words to the ancient Chinese text Zuishu [隋書] (circa 636 AD), which records, among other things, a spellcraft practice that involves mushi: on the fifth day of May, a hundred species of bugs and snakes are gathered together in a container and are let to devour each other, and the individual being(s) from the species that survive(s) can then be used as a magical tool to take a person’s life.

On a tangential note, recently I learned that the fast-growing Japanese firm Euglena Company is promoting health products based on euglena (also nicknamed midori-mushi [ミドリムシ], or ‘green bug’). It is a light-harvesting, green single-cell organism that is not considered either a plant or an animal. It is also said to be the world’s next superfood as well as a source of renewable biofuel. The Japanese airline ANA has begun to use euglena as jet fuel. This, perhaps, is modern magic.

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* The original of the excerpt goes like this:

そうした心の不思議を日本人は「虫」として思い描いた。心というものは、自分が欲し、自分が考え、自分が感じる、そういうものである。にもかかわらず、心が
自分の思いどおりにならない場合がしばしばある。ということは、心の中に、もうひとつのべつの心があるにちがいない。日本人はその「ふたつの魂」のひとつ
を「虫」と呼んだのである。そして、人間にとって、より根源的なのはこの虫のほうだと考えた。なぜなら、人間が意識を失って、息も絶え絶えになったとき、
日本人はその状態を「虫の息」というではないか。「虫の息」とは体内の虫だけがかろうじて息をしているさまである。つまり、最後まで人間の生をささえてい
るのは「虫」なのだ。この意味で日本人の考える「虫」とはフロイトのリビドーに近い。

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