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A Quiet Drama in Japanese Skies

Have you ever seen a firefly?'' Mrs. Kashima asked me. I was in southern Japan at the Kashima family's home, polishing off a make-your-own-sushi supper. We were watching our usual early-evening TV programs: dubbed ''Alf'' reruns and quiz shows. Suddenly the Kashima family - Grandma, Dad, Mom, and Naoko - was up and headed toward the door. It was time, they told me, to see the fireflies.

I had been living in Japan for a year and had already been to see the autumn moon, the falling snow, and the cherry blossoms - events that in Japan prompt viewing parties. I had not expected insects to be on Japan's list of things that must be observed.

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I told Mrs. Kashima that I had already seen fireflies. My cousins and I used to chase them at my grandparents' home in Illinois. The Kashimas stopped and looked at me, surprised. Fireflies in America! Not to be daunted, they asked if I had seen any fireflies in Japan.

Feeling smug, I told them, ''Uh-huh, there are a couple behind my apartment.'' I thought I had this viewing season covered. They looked amused.

What is this tradition about anyway? I wondered. Cherry-blossom viewing is a major spring event in Japan and has been for centuries. Old wood-block prints depict people sitting under the blossoms; these days, newscasts lead off with shots of revelers in much the same condition, except that kimonos have been replaced by navy suits.

Last year, cherry-blossom viewing season began in late March, when my mother and her friend visited me. We viewed the flowers in our own brief Minnesotan way: We ran up and sniffed them, found they had no smell, checked them out at close range, backed up to get the overall effect, and took pictures of each other smiling in front of the flower-filled trees. Then we moved on to other sights.

The Japanese people around us, however, were making a day of it. Paying scant attention to the blossoms overheard, they sat below the boughs on blue tarps, eating treats, talking, and laughing. They were participating in hana-mi, meaning ''look at flowers,'' but they seemed unaware of them.

It was a warm June evening, and the Kashimas dragged me outside in search of fireflies. They live on a farm next to the little Koto river, which is said to be a prime firefly viewing spot. It was a moonless night, and as we walked away from the house, toward the river, it became very dark. There are few outdoor lights in this small town.

''Look,'' I said, a little surprised. Through the trees I could see glittering lights.

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''Yes,'' they said, sounding unimpressed. ''Come on.''

I had no idea what was ahead. I had learned to suppress my expectations in Japan, since what I expected and what occurred were often completely different. Last autumn I went moon-viewing with a group of Shuho town workers. We sat on a plastic sheet on the roof of the town gymnasium, supposedly to appreciate the best full moon of the year. But the event seemed more an excuse to visit and eat our way through a spread of crackers, cookies, and dango - mushy, sweet, rice-based balls that are eaten while viewing the autumn moon.

I walked with the Kashima family to a small bridge that spanned the river. All around us were hundreds, maybe thousands of fireflies. They were in the bushes, along the grassy banks, in the grove of trees, above us, all around, blinking on-off on-off. I was surprised that most of them blinked in unison.

It had been years since I had seen American fireflies, and I was amazed. It was as if there were a leader in the group, saying, ''Sei, no - on! ... Sei, no - off!'' I laughed to myself, thinking how Japanese fireflies seemed to function like Japanese people, in groups. As a foreigner in a homogenous culture, I felt a certain kinship with the few bugs I saw blinking on the offbeat.

''Wow,'' I said. The five of us watched the fireflies.

Grandma Kashima looked a little disappointed: ''The numbers are down this year,'' she said. I couldn't imagine there being more. We all stood quietly for a moment and watched.

That was when I began to understand the Japanese tradition of nature viewing. It is not merely about looking at a natural phenomenon. It is about sharing an experience. Japanese society is group oriented. Nearly everyone I meet in Japan has a hobby, and it is generally something to do with a club or with other people. Many of my Japanese friends have traveled to other countries, but they generally go as part of a tour group. Similarly, viewing is not simply about seeing fireflies, watching the snow fall, looking at the moon, or appreciating blossoms. It is about giving people the opportunity to be together, to find community.

Naoko elbowed me out of my reverie. ''Look up,'' she said. ''Millions of fireflies.''

I moved my gaze from the riverside grasses, through the trees, to the treetops and the star-filled sky.

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