Live and Let Die: The Yaru and Tabira in Okinawa


“Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armored cars.” ~Tama Janowitz

No.  No, there is no "cute" roach.  EVER.

No. No, there is no “cute” roach. EVER.

Live and let live. One of the many messages the holiday should convey. Both which always remind me of a most welcomed houseguest we hosted back on Okinawa in 1999.

She ended up staying for the next 20 months. She didn’t take up a lot of room, was seldom if ever seen, and didn’t cost us a dime to keep around. I’m not even sure “it” was a female; I respected her privacy too much to really check, and my guess is based only on “her” reclusive Goth-like teenager behavior….

Who we welcomed into our home back then was the more beneficial of two perennial icons and adversaries of Okinawa. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking about the mongoose-snake pairing famous in the Ryukyus. What I’m talking about is the yaru. And she became our home’s guardian from the rather disgusting creature in the pairing, the tabira. Unfortunately she couldn’t protect me from the Land of Misfit Toys I found myself shipwrecked upon….

I bet Ace feels the same way about roaches.  I mean with their fangs and all….

rodanus1tAG_46603The tabira is a much nicer-sounding name for something most of us detest – the large almost indestructible cockroach that seems so ubiquitous at tropical and sub-tropical latitudes all across the globe. I grew up sharing South Florida with these creatures, some approaching the size of Rodan, and who can fly every bit as well. Hell, Godzilla would even have issues warring with these underworld sleuths. Urban legend within my own family states that one can never, ever make eye-contact with a roach: they sense fear and will leverage that advantage by flying directly into your face! Personally, as a hardened veteran of decades of war with these invaders, I conclude that there is not much that can be done to defeat and declare victory over such a robust warrior. Only a pyrrhic win is in the realm of possibility.

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Far more agreeable of this classic pairing is the yaru, Japanese for what we in the west are familiar with as the gecko (“wall lizard”). Like most Japanese characters, it’s an idea more than just a simple word, which best translates as “protector” or “guardian of the home.” This moniker is easily sourced to this particular lizard’s inherent ability to do what we humans can’t: organically control and even defeat roach infestations at every turn.

Our 5 bedroom, two story home back in 1999.  A veritable roach-ryokan if you will....

Our 5 bedroom, two-story home back in 1999. A veritable roach-ryokan if you will….

Our immediate neighborhood.

Our immediate neighborhood.

Back in 1999 we lived in a very large house, which actually had a yard complete with brushes and shrubs. The surrounding neighborhoods were dotted with sugarcane fields, they themselves riddled with roaches. Which, sooner or later, found their way into our home. Contractual pest control is not something the Okinawans do, and as Americans we are largely left to defend ourselves out on the local economy. While our cat Tora did kill and finally eat a roach or two, it was only when she found one, and then only after about 68 minutes of torturous play. That is if the insect didn’t escape during a lapse in the cat’s attention…. For an interesting tale of how we named our Okinawan-adopted cat, see Tora Tora Tora!

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Okinawa is hot, humid, and often wet, and still in many places covered with dense foliage that you might expect from a subtropical island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Still being quite rural in places and without extensive use of pesticides or other more formalized pest control measures, there is a high probably of personal interaction with all sorts of creatures, great and small. The gecko foremost among them.

Moving into our office/computer room.  Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room's AC....

Moving into our office/computer room. Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room’s AC….

So one night came the call from the direction and vicinity of our computer room office. That distinctive chirp that announces a gecko’s presence. At first we didn’t know what it was, and unless one is used to sharing their abode with a reptile or two, it can be quite disconcerting. I tracked our guest’s presence down to one corner of the office, but since her call was so random and short-lived, nailing down the location of her home became an entertaining game of sorts. The kids and I would run to the office door and screech to a stop, me motioning for them to stay quiet and enter the room with stealth in order not to spook our little friend. And then we would tip-toe into the room, looking here and there, motioning to each other in precise coordination using military-like signals.

Which would you rather have:  the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

Which would you rather have: the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

This four-legged friend is unique in appearance with almost transparent skin, and usually announces its presence not visually, but using its very distinctive call, a song usually heard in the evenings, intermittently throughout the night. And what many Americans might consider an uninvited guest, the Japanese welcome into their homes. Okinawans – a very superstitious people – believe that Gecko brings good fortune when found in their homes, so geckos here are not killed or removed from the home, but are left in residence, both as living good luck charms and the guards against insects which they are. From a pragmatic standpoint, this creature – cute to some – really does protect the home from a whole plethora of undesirables, devouring life forms like mosquitos, flies and cockroaches.

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this....

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this….

Unfortunately, like most other aspects of life, there is no free lunch. Well, there is for the gecko, but of course there is a price to pay. All living things excrete, and the yaru is no exception. Thus, small amounts of processed bug may be found around the home, looking like those chocolate sprinkles so popular on cupcakes. These we found often, mostly located below the room’s AC unit, on window sills, and in corners of other rooms in our home. I made this too a detective game to play with the kids, using these finds to track our vigilante’s movements through the home.

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Our gecko’s home was never officially located, or at least I made sure “we” never found her. While I knew exactly where she was living – atop and/or in our room’s air conditioner unit, I wanted the mystery to remain for the kids. I had no intention of ruining our good thing; since the gecko’s arrival, our roach problem had…ceased to exist. But this also highlights a related source of well-known trouble in Okinawa regarding the yaru: air conditioners. In fact, one of the leading causes of AC trouble here is this little innocuous lizard. Air conditioners are nice and warm inside, and offer an inviting place for the lady yarus to nest and start a family (lay eggs). Problem is that often times this results in an electrical short, resulting in not just costly repairs, but the untimely demise of a valued protector. To counter, it’s very easy to find a special attachment for ACs called “Gecko guards” in the home-improvement stores here on Okinawa. In an ironic twist sometimes we have to guard against the guard.

qjuo

Revell%20H450%20GekkoThe nocturnal hunter-killer aspects of the gecko are often confused with a similarly named Japanese aircraft from WWII: The Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (or Gekkou). Developed to meet the Japanese navy’s requirements for a long-range escort fighter, the J1N1 instead entered service as a reconnaissance platform instead. The need to counter the largely unopposed American night bombing raids of 1943 in the Southwest Pacific led to its conversion into a night fighter, a role served so well by the carbon-based version. Starting In May 1943, the J1N1-S meet with success by downing two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and was quickly nicknamed the “Gekko” (or “Gekkou“), meaning “moonlight” or “moonbeam.” Like most other elements of Japanese aviation in 1945, Gekkos were further modified as kamikaze suicide platforms, something its reptile namesake would never consider.

Live and let live after all.

pest_cockroach_lrg

I mean, except for those terrible tabira….

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