The first time I read “Genji Monogatari”, my Japanese was pathetically inadequate to allow me to understand why the author had used the word “Utsusemi” (空蝉) as the name of the first noble lady that charmed the young “shining prince”; the second time things were a little better since combining the characters (“empty” and “cicada”) I figured out the connection with the episode where in her attempt to escape Genji’s affections, Utsusemi leaves her outer kimono behind. Still, my understanding was lacking because I believed, erroneously as I found out, that identifying cicada with summer (and their death with autumn) was a privilege of the Mediterranean countries. The (fortunate from many aspects) coincidence of my arrival in Japan at the exact time when the cicadas start their brief passage from this world was exactly what I needed to realize why the cicada couldn’t be absent from that most classic of all classic Japanese literary works.
Cicadas in Japan are one of the strongest arguments for the belief that the Japanese’s hypersensitiveness to seasons might not be another “nihonjin-ron” fabrication after all. Insectologists say that there are over 30 specimens and I guess they are right; personally I can only discern between the minmin-zemi (ミンミンゼミ ), the higurashi (ヒグラシ) and the tsukutsuku-boshi (ツクツクボウシ) but even these are enough to make you admit that the Japanese are right: each one of them creates a different feeling of both the season and the place where you hear them. And from the moment you will, it’s impossible to not associate their sound with what you are experiencing in space and time; the intensity and the variety of their sounds (no relation to the cicadas of the Mediterranean) guarantee that the experience will never fade from your memory. It is not surprising that when a Japanese film or TV series wants to show that some scene takes place in the summer, the director will always (always!) add a soundtrack of cicadas.
Now I can understand why the summer comes with the minmin-zemi and ends with the tsukutsuku-boshi: when you hear the voice of the latter and start seeing on the ground their empty shells, you realize, like Genji did one thousand years ago that it won’t be long until autumn. Some say their voice seems to say “tsuku-tzuku-oshii” that is, “it’s really a pity”; being in the process of formulating a love-hate relationship with the Japanese summer, I’m not sure I subscribe to this interpretation but if there is something the Japanese love more than seasons is the reminder of the evanescence of everything. The huge and, by all accounts, extremely ugly cicada might not have any relation with the fine and beautiful flowers of the cherry-tree but eventually, the message they both convey to the people is the same -whether it is sad or not depends on the recipient’s point of view.
Like a previous letter about baked yams this too would be incomplete without the sounds of the cicadas. One page with several of them can be found here -the minmin-zemi and the higurashi are second and third from the bottom in the right column and the tsukutsuku-boshi is fourth from the bottom in the middle one.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.