Back in the seventh and eighth centuries, the poets wrote fondly of 昆虫 (konchū, insects) and their association with summer.
We’re just as likely to associate 虫 (mushi, bugs) with the season these days, but I’m not sure we’ll get any 21st-century poems about the ゴキブリ (gokiburi, cockroaches) that come out with the heat anytime soon.
Summer is more likely to be associated with the sight of 蝶 (chō, butterflies) and とんぼ (tonbo, dragonflies) on a sweltering day, the buzz of a 蜂 (hachi, bee) flying from flower to flower, or a line of 蟻 (ari, ants) that has come across a Popsicle that has been dropped on the ground.
For children, July and August are a time for 夏休みの自由研究 (natsuyasumi no jiyū kenkyū), a summer project for school, and the most popular ones often have to do with writing insect diaries. You’re bound to see kids out with a parent or grandparent armed with a 虫取り網 (mushitoriami, a net for catching insects), 虫眼鏡 (mushimegane, a magnifying glass) and a 虫かご (mushikago, a cage or jar to keep the insect in). These three items will help in the capture and containment of such prized insects as クワガタ (kuwagata, stag beetles) or カブトムシ(kabutomushi, rhinoceros beetles), should you be lucky enough to come across one.
The 昆虫 most associated with summer, however, is probably the セミ (semi, cicada). “セミが鳴き始めたからもう梅雨明けだ” (“Semi ga nakihajimeta kara mō tsuyu-ake da,” “The cicadas have started crying, so it’s already the end of rainy season”) is something I can recall my father saying. In fact, you could say that summer doesn’t really begin until you hear the セミの鳴き声 (semi no nakigoe, cry of the cicada).
What does that 鳴き声 sound like in English? Is it a hiss or a buzz? In Japanese it’s often depicted as ミーンミンミンミーン (mīn min min mīn) or a ツクツクホーシ (tsuku tsuku hōshi) depending on what kind of cicada you’re listening to. Add those sounds to the chorus of チンチロリン (chinchirorin) chirps of a マツムシ (matsumushi, pine cricket), the リーンリーン (rīn rīn) of the スズムシ (suzumushi, bell cricket) and the カナカナカナ (kana kana kana) of the ヒグラシ (higurashi, evening cicada) that typically appears at the end of summer and you’ve got quite the orchestra.
A less welcome sound is one a 泣き虫 (nakimushi) makes, as that word translates as “crybaby” in English. When it comes to the use of 虫 in Japanese terminology, not all of it sounds positive.
An お邪魔虫 (o-jamamushi, literally a “troublesome insect”) is how the Japanese refer to a “third wheel,” while a 弱虫 (yowamushi, lit. a “weak insect”) is what they call a “scaredy cat.” You go to the dentist when you have a 虫歯 (mushiba, cavity) and when 虫が良すぎる (mushi ga yosugiru, lit. “a bug that’s too good”), it conveys the idea that you are asking too much of someone: “年内にコロナのワクチンが開発されるなんて虫が良すぎる話だ” (“Nennai ni korona no wakuchin ga kaihatsu sareru nante mushi ga yosugiru hanashi da,” “It’s asking a bit much for the coronavirus vaccine to be developed within this year”).
Some insects are うるさい (urusai), which means “noisy” and can be used instead of “shut up,” but that’s because it has the nuance of being irritating. In fact, the kanji for the word is 五月蝿い, which translates to 五月 (gogatsu, May) and 蝿 (hae, fly). And it’s in May when 蝿 start to appear, as do the ハエたたき (haetataki, fly swatters). A lot of homes will have 虫除け (mushiyoke, insect repellent) lying around, but I find that it’s the 小蝿, more often written in katakana as コバエ (kobae, fruit flies), that are the real irritant.
コバエ can slip through the mesh screening on a window and are the reason you need to store every piece of food in your refrigerator and make sure you don’t miss garbage day. コバエが一番やっかいです (kobae ga ichiban yakkai desu, fruit flies are the most annoying).
Also annoying is the 蚊 (ka, mosquito), except these little creatures are apt to leave you in an unpleasant state of itching: “蚊にさされた！” (“Ka ni sasareta!,” “I was bitten by a mosquito!”) is a phrase you’re likely to hear on restaurant patios at night. Luckily, there are myriad 蚊除け (kayoke, mosquito repellents) on the market to ensure a good night’s sleep. I prefer organic 蚊取り線香 (katorisenko, mosquito coils) that can double as incense and whose scent never fails to take me back to my childhood. I guess even the most annoying of insects can inspire some sort of poetic nostalgia.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.