Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Reminiscences of Summer in Japan: The Sound of Cicada

Origami cicada.
Photo: Itsumo Japan
The summer weather here in Leeds has been a bit hit and miss recently but amidst the torrential downpours and skies filled with ominous grey clouds we have had some days of sun. On such warm sunny days my thoughts often return to a very hot and sticky July that I spent in Japan a few years ago as well as the urge to be back there. Along with the heat there many things that optimize summer in Japan for me, one of them is the sound of cicada. The incessant mii-mii-miiin of the cicada, or semi in Japanese, was an ever present part of the soundtrack of my summer trip. Though some find the sound understandably annoying, for many people the sound of these little insects buzzing away in the trees of parks and city streets heralds the arrival of summer in Japan. In traditional culture too the sound of the cicada represented the summer. In an almanac that separates the year into 72 periods each named after seasonal changes in nature assigns the period from 16-20 July as 'Brown
Cicada Sings'. Though the sound of the cicada is not pleasant it is nostalgic conjuring up memories of July when the heat and humidity are not pleasant either. (To find out more about the Japanese seasonal almanac read Liza Dalby's excellent book East Wind Melts the Ice: A Memoir Through the Seasons.) Sei Shōnagon lists 'A clear-toned cicada' amongst her favourite insects in her Pillow Book and Bashō wrote several haiku about the piercing sound of cicada including the following;

しずかさ や いわ に しみいる せみ の こえ
Serenity and/yet
penetrating the rock
the voice of the cicada
(1689)

やがて しぬ けしき わ みえず せみ の こえ
So soon to die
you can hardly tell it
by the cicada's voice
(1690)

Watch the video below and judge for yourself whether the incessant 'song' of the cicada is annoying or not, the maker of the video certainly thinks so, but I'm willing to bet that any of you that have visited Japan in the summer will feel at least a little nostalgic.

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