Return of the mukade

There are few Japanese animals as fabled and feared among expats in Japan as the poisonous Japanese centipede (called mukade in Japanese). Proof of this widespread fascination is the number of people who find their way to this blog on a daily basis, looking for mukade information.

Having been a Japan geek long before moving to Japan, I had of course heard of mukade. Some of you might remember my elation when I saw my first mukade only a few days into my stay in Japan. I can assure you that I felt equally elated about never meeting a mukade since that day. Until a few months ago, that is.

It is a beautiful day in May. My parents and I are having a walk in the forest, in the lovely town of Asuke (Toyota City).

forest in Asuke

Forest walk in Asuke

Suddenly my mother calls out. “Look at this interesting animal I have found”. What could it be? A butterfly? A squirrel perhaps? I rush over to see what it is. I catch a glimpse of a shining brown exoskeleton and bright orange legs. It’s the dreaded mukade! And a big one too. “Stay back!” I shout. “It’s a mukade”.


The mukade, who almost appears to be posing for the photograph

But there is no need for fear. The mukade completely ignores us. He’s just scrambling about the leaves, probably looking for a good place to hide from us. This provided me with some wonderful photo opportunities. The previous mukade I met (in the supermarket) ran straight towards me when I tried taking a picture.

After a year of living in Japan, I think it is safe to say that at least in the Toyota City and Nagoya area, there is no need to fear the mukade. I don’t know anyone who has had problems with mukade (apart from one horror story about ‘the mukade mountain’, an overgrown mountain that is apparently teeming with mukade and is causing some problems for the nearby apartment building).

So why are expats so afraid of this animal? Speaking from my own Belgian point of view, we are not used to giant, poisonous bugs. The most dangerous bugs we have around here are mosquitoes. In hot and humid Japan, the sheer size of the bugs is a trigger for expat imagination. And then we find out they are poisonous as well! That is one advantage to being back in Belgium: no more scary bugs!

Mukade – the terrible Japanese centipede

Before coming to Japan I had read about ‘mukade’: giant poisonous centipedes. They can grow to be up to 20cm long. They are hunters who eat cockroaches and other small animals. Here’s a close-up of a particularly handsome fellow that I found on the internet:

mukade close-up

And for size reference, a picture I found on the internet of some brave/crazy person with a mukade on their hand:

as you can see, they can be hughe

Half horrified, half fascinated, I wondered if I would encounter any mukade during my stay in Japan. I seem to be in luck: 4 days into my stay here, I have spotted my first mukade.

We were in the supermarket with Yasuko-san, someone from the relocation office that helps us with all ‘settling in business’. As we are checking out a drying frame for clothing, I see something out of the corner of my eye. It’s a mukade.

I crie out a warning. Instantly everyone in the vicinity is alarmed. Japanese women shriek in anxiety. Store personnel flocks to the crime scene. Calls to store department managers are being made. Meanwhile I’m trying to get a good picture of the mukade but it spots me and starts running in my direction (they are very fast!). I am forced to retreat. One dutiful employee tries to catch the mukade with a broom and a dustbin. But it outruns us all and hides beneath some shelves.

The search is discontinued. Still slightly anxious, we all return to business as usual.

it seems to be a small one, 10cm maximum

dutiful and brave employees trying to catch the mukade

everyone wants to see the mukade

where is it???

I have done some research about mukade. It is hard to separate myth from fact. But here goes… Apparently they like to hide in cosy places such as shoes, toilets, bed linnens, etc. Or alternatively they crawl up to you in your sleep (with a preference for body cavities such as ears or noses) or sit on the ceiling and fall down on unsuspecting victims. Their bite is very painful and when being bitten by a large mukade, it is best to see a doctor. They appear to be tough critters, very hard to kill, even after being exposed to bug spray, fire and boiling water. In Japan they are often used as a symbol for evil. They are most abundant in the rainy season, which is roughly from june to august.

I was glad to see a mukade once, but I think I’ve had my fill for a good while now. I’m terrified of finding one in my apartment. Would they be able to find their way up to the fifth floor? In any case, all rooms and especially the bed will get mukade sweeps on a daily basis.

I wonder what other exotic insects warm and humid Japan has in store for me…