Soundtrack in my head: Madness, “Grey Day”
I was surprised to read that Illinois’ state fish, the bluegill, is an aggressive invader species causing all sort of problems in lakes across Japan. A recent news article said that Japan’s Emperor Akihito claimed responsibility for bringing the bluegill species to Japan in the 1960’s. Chicago’s late mayor Richard J Daley, (father of the current Chicago mayor) reportedly gave several bluegill to Akihito as a gift when he was still the Crown Prince of Japan. According to Akihito, the bluegills were intended to be raised for food, but their populations exploded unexpectedly, and have been endangering native Japanese fish species for a long time.
It’s ironic, because the Illinois River has been infested with a different invasive species, the Asian carp, and there is significant worry that they’ll make their way up the river into the Great Lakes, where they could cause great havoc.
But the irony runs even deeper for me personally. Illinois and Japan both represent things in my life that I’ve left behind. I was born and raised in Illinois and lived thirty of my years there. But my mother first became pregnant with me while my parents were stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War, and for many years I joked that I spent six months in Japan but never set foot there. That changed in the fall of 2000 when I visited Japan as part of a pilgrimage for Mahikari, a spiritual organization I was involved with at the time.
I remember writing a paper about the bluegill sometime around the sixth or seventh grade–I might have even had to give a speech about it. I think I also remember doing a color pencil drawing of the bluegill. I also remember that Lake Biwa, the Japanese lake that the bluegill was first released into, is mentioned in the Mahikari prayer book.
I left Chicago in 2003 and left Mahikari, the aforementioned Japanese spiritual path, a few weeks ago. Part of the reason had to do with discomfort with some cultural apsects of each. So, even though its not funny, I found myself laughing when I read about this strange connection between the two.
Maybe I’m laughing because I have this image of aggressive and somewhat politically incorrect fish with Chicago accents bullying their way through Japanese lakes, while the bewildered native species try to be polite to these aquatic Monsters of the Midway. Of course, the reverse is happening in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
Back in the 1960’s, the devastating impact of invasive species was not as well known as it is now. Neither the elder Daley nor Akihito knew what they were getting into when the gift was made, so it’s not like either of them can be criticized or made fun of. Japanese officials have succeeded in cutting the bluegill population in half over the last couple of years, and hopefully similar success can achieved in controlling the Asian carp. And the younger Daley currently serving as Chicago’s mayor has developed a reputation for being an enviromentally-minded mayor–a reputation that is, at least to some extent, well-deserved.
Nevertheless, I can imagine my fellow Wisconsinites reading about the bluegill debacle in the paper, thinking, “Those darn Illinoisians, they’re at it again.”