Thursday 10 August 2017

Cicada Poetry: The Sound of Summer

The empty shell or exoskeleton of a cicada stuck to a leaf almost perfectly intact
Cicada nymph exoskeleton (nuke-gara)
閑さや (Stillness)
岩にしみ入る (seeping into the rocks)
蝉の声 (the cicada's voice)
(Basho Narrow Road to the Deep North,1689)

Summer means a lot of things in Japan - rainy season, stifling heat, humidity, ghost stories, fireworks, grilled eel - but the sound of summer is without doubt the "the cicada's voice" (semi no koe =蝉の声). We don't have these rather large tree bugs in the UK so it came of something of culture shock to encounter them in my first summer in Japan. They emerge from the ground when the rainy season ends thereby marking the start of the truly hot, humid, and fierce Japanese summer. This is nicely captured by another old haiku, adapted from Lafcadio Hearn (1900:79):

初蝉や (The first cicada begins to cry!)
「これは暑い」と ("Oh, how hot it is!")
いう日より (from that day on)

A cicada nymph which has just emerged from underground looking for a suitable spot to shed its skin
Cicada nymph (video here)
Finger-size holes pockmarking the base of tree trunks show us where the nymphs, after many years underground, dug themselves out. The picture left shows how they look in this state as they crawl out and seek a good place to anchor themselves to, a place where they can safely break out of their larval skin leaving an amazingly complete exoskeleton behind (with a zipper-like slit running right across the back). The picture above shows this empty shell (nuke-gara in Japanese), stuck to the bottom of a leaf. Somewhat surprisingly, whereas the nymph and the shell are only about 2.5cm long, once free of the shell the cicada itself is double this size, perhaps because of the long intricately patterned wings. The beautifully camouflaged adult cicada (below) will climb or fly up into the trees and the various males will then begin their symphony as they compete to attract mates.

A 5cm long "oil" cicada with beautifulky patterned wings
Adult abura-zemi
There are a whole host of names for different kinds of semi, many of which are onomatopoeic renditions of the sounds they make. In his 1900 book Shadowings, Lafcadio Hearn dedicates an entire chapter (pp. 71-104) to cicadas and all their different calls, a chapter which includes illustrations and a number of poems. He describes eight cicadas in detail in rough order of appearance: (1) haru-zemi (2) shine-shine/yama/kuma/ō-zemi (3) abura-zemi (oil-cicada because its sounds like oil frying in a pan! See video below) (4)  mugi-kari-zemi (5) higurashi/kana-kana-zemi (6) min-min-zemi (7) tsuku-tsuku-bōshi-zemi (for Hearn the most beautiful and also one of the last cicadas) and (8) Tsurigane-zemi. Most of these are pictured with audio here. One obvious omission from his list (unless he was using a different name?) is the nii-nii-zemi which appears from the middle to the end of July and makes a noise just like its name! However, the most common species is the abura-zemi (pictured), a cicada Hearn appears to have a particular soft spot for:

The aburazemi begins to chant about sunrise; then a great soft hissing seems to ascend from all the trees. At such an hour, when the foliage of woods and gardens still sparkles with dew, might have been composed the following verse - the only one in my collection relating to the aburazemi: Ano koe de (あの声で=speaking with that voice)/tsuyu ga inochi ka (露が命か=has the dew taken life?)/abura-zemi! (Hearn 1900:81)

The reference to "dew" no doubt symbolises the ephemerality of the cicada, an insect who gestates underground for years but lives for only about a week above ground. One will often see seemingly dead semi on the ground, but if you approach them they sometimes come back to life in a final burst of song, humourously referred to as "semi-final" (セミファイナル)! For this writer, the cacophony of sounds from dawn until dusk (and sometimes even later) seem to signify a summer that lasts forever, one of no beginning and no end filled with the constant buzz of tens of thousands of shrill voices crying in the intense, oppressive heat. It is enough to induce a certain heady insanity - and remind us of our own mortality.
That it will die before long (頓て死ぬ)
 there is no sign (けしきは見えず)
in the cicada's cry (蝉の声)
(Basho, None is Travelling 1689)