The start of autumn
is always decided by
The red dragonfly
–Kaya Shirao


People in Japan love insects. Boys in particular are fascinated by stag beetles, while fireflies, or hotaru, are enjoyed by all in summer. 

But the dragonfly has perhaps a more storied history with the nation. Jimmu, the mythological first emperor of Japan, once supposedly remarked that his nation was shaped like two dragonflies mating. In fact, Japan was once known as Akitsu-shima, or Dragonfly Island, where akitsu is the old word for dragonfly and shima means island or islands. 

Nowadays, people call them tombo—which you can find in the term tombogaeri, or aerial somersault, which is derived from the fact that dragonflies can turn quickly in the air. The same term is also used to describe when you go somewhere and turn right back home.

If you’re lucky, you can also sometimes see a red dragonfly, or aka-tombo, like the gorgeous one above. Find out where this one was spotted—and about the nostalgic children’s song named after these dazzling insects.

Red Dragonfly

Oh, red dragonfly… red dragonfly at twilight…
I saw you for the first time while still a baby being carried on my sister’s back…
Could it be that long ago?

Picking mulberries from the mountain field…
And our little baskets…
Was that all a dream?

My sister got married when she was fifteen…
And moved far, far away.
She no longer sends news to our village.

Oh, red dragonfly… red dragonfly at twilight…
I see you resting there on the tip of the bamboo reed.

Lyrics by Miki Rofu; Melody by Yamada Kosaku

English translation by Dianne Ooka, in Yoko Imoto, Best-Loved Children’s Songs from Japan
(Torrance: Heian International, 1996).