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The transient rasping that captivates the poets

by Hiroaki Sato

“And there it was, its beady, blood-red eyes glaring up from the sidewalk, a threat of shrieking hell to come.”

That’s how Ashley Halsey III reported the re-advent of 17-year cicadas (Magicicada) for The Washington Post (“Those beady-eyed bugs are back: Cicadas spotted in Northern Virginia,” May 12, 2013). He went on to call cicadas “ugly bugs.”

Do cicadas create a shrieking hell? Are they ugly? Halsey III was describing the periodical cicadas whose “incredible ability to merge by the millions,” Richard Alexander and Thomas Moore observed in their 1962 paper, “within a matter of hours after having spent 13 or 17 years underground as silent, burrowing, solitary, sedentary juveniles is without parallel in the animal kingdom.”

So I asked three Japanese — one relative and two friends — what comes to mind when they hear the word semi (cicada).

My niece who lives in Mamaroneck, north of Manhattan, because of her husband’s assignment to New York, wrote: “Experiencing the summer here for the first time last year, I remember thinking, Ah, unlike London, there are cicadas here. (She and her family lived in the British capital for over seven years.) They weren’t as rambunctious as they are in Japan. In the Japanese summer, cicadas’ cries are so noisy as to be annoying.”

What she heard were annual cicadas (Tibicen tibicen) whose short rasping can be musical as the Latin name suggests.

“Flavorful, crisp. That’s what pops in my mind,” a friend in Tokyo responded. “Come season, their shells dot the ground, and their light amber appeals to my tactile sense. Before I know it, I find myself picking them up crushing them between my fingers. (Their contents are screaming up in the trees.) … Once they die, they are dead, rolling about supine here and there, dryly unconcerned about it all.”

“Empty cicada,” a friend in Aomori said. “A poetic image. They live only for a little while, hence transiency. Because I live in a relatively cold region, when I hear cicadas cry, I feel all the more that the short summer will end even before I have the time to sigh.”

The word my Aomori friend used for “empty cicada ” is utsusemi, the cicada shell. Because of homophones, early Japanese poets equated it with “the human in this world,” another short-lived being.

The cicada shell as a symbol of the vanity of life — as in the Biblical “vanity is vanity” — is expressed well in an anonymous poem in “Kokinshu,” an anthology from the early 10th century: “The husks of empty cicadas are left on every tree, but not seeing where their spirits have gone makes me sad.” In the original, “tree” (ki) also means “coffin.”

But the word utsusemi most likely reminds readers of classical Japanese literature of the chapter with that word for the title of “The Tale of Genji.” That is where Genji the Shining Prince, still in his late teens, tries to seduce an old, low-ranking courtier’s young second wife, and fails. He fails because the married woman, sensing his approach in the darkness of night, slips away, leaving only her garment behind.

Frustrated, the prince sends her an alba: “Under the tree where the cicada shell has transformed her body I still miss the person herself.” “Cicada shell” here is the same as “cicada,” a helpful annotator explains, and adds that hitogara, “person herself” in this translation, is a pun that means both “human shell” and “personality.” The cicada itself would become a symbol of the transience of life.

“Not showing it is soon to die the cicada’s voice,” Basho wrote six centuries later. Not that Japanese poets forgot about the first thing my Mamaroneck niece thought of: the great noise cicadas can make.

In fact, those who look into such matters tell us that the “Man’yoshu,” the large anthology of 4,500 poems from the eighth century, has just one poem using the word semi, and it describes the creature’s impressive sound-making power: “Listening to the cicadas’ voices roaring like a rock-rushing waterfall I’m compelled to think of the Capital.”

“The Capital” here is Nara, not Kyoto. The poet, Oishi no Minomaro, composed it on Kurahashi Island, in Hiroshima.

The most famous haiku on cicadas may be: “Quietness: seeping into the rocks the cicada’s voice.”

This piece by Basho prompted a scientific controversy, as it were, in 1926, when the psychiatrist-cum-tanka poet Mokichi Saito asserted that this cicada has to be aburazemi, “oily cicada” (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata). It is this species’ persistent, sizzling shirring is said to “amplify” the oppression of the hot, humid Japanese summer.

But the German scholar Toyotaka Komiya objected. Considering the time and place Basho wrote the piece — mid-July 1689, at Risshaku Temple, in Yamagata — the cicada has to be niiniizemi, “tremulous cicada” (Platypleura kaempferi), Komiya judged. It makes a low-key yet penetrating sound. Komiya won the argument.

There is, for that matter, a striking difference between English and Japanese Wikipedia entries on the cicada. The English entry is detailed enough, but the Japanese entry lists a number of subspecies, which are then linked to sub-subspecies, each described with care.

And, speaking of differences, Ashley Halsey III’s “shrieking hell” and “ugly bugs” are the antithesis of how Kotaro Takamura viewed the cicada.

Takamura, the sculptor-poet captivated by Auguste Rodin and “Western ideals” in his youth, increasingly supported Japan’s imperialist causes during the 1930s. He also came to appreciate his father Koun’s sculpting skills, which he had initially condemned as an “artisan’s,” not an “artist’s.” One such skill was carving wood with a single knife.

“The way the Japanese cicadas rasp as loudly as they can, with childlike abandon,” he ended his 1940 essay on carving the insect, “the way their rasps pierce the core of my brain, is very pleasant.

“Indeed, what’s described as semi shigure, ‘cicada shower,’ or the competitive performance of cicadas in the woods, is a present of the summer, as beautiful as a dream. When I carve a cicada, I feel as if a breeze dripping with the green of such woods fills up my room.”

The essay was titled “The Beauty and the Plasticity of the Cicada.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and writer in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” was published last fall.

  • Jim

    Unfortunately the writer quotes Wikipedia. It’s hard to take such an article seriously.

    • RSorge

      Hiroaki Sato is a respected translator (and writer) who we can assume uses Wikipedia judiciously. Rejecting the article for its limited use of Wikipedia is not judicious.

  • Hannes Pretorius

    What a lovely read.