Jul 13, 2017

Japan's Summer Singing Sensations

One fine summer morning in Japan, just after sunrise, I was woken up by a sound that can only be described as a cross between high decibel screeching and a rasping sound. It reminded me of the worker who sits outside buildings being constructed in India and slowly and steadily cuts iron rods into pieces while the noise from his machine pierces your skull till you want to die.  

I opened the sliding door of my balcony and stepped out. No one was in sight but the sound was almost unbearable outside. Then I remembered my Indian neighbors had talked about seeing a pressure cooker in one of the local shops and wanting to try it out. I wondered if this is what a Japanese pressure cooker’s whistle sounds like.

All through the morning as I dressed, ate breakfast and left for work, the noise continued unabated. If this was indeed the pressure cooker whistle, I wondered what my neighbors were cooking!

But it was not the pressure cooker because the sound followed me all the way as I walked to the train station. Mercifully the sound shut off as soon as I entered the underground station.

My office was surrounded by a whole lot of trees and as I stepped out for some fresh air during my lunch break, the sound hit me again. By now I was sure that it was some kind of animal or bird but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what exactly it was. I couldn’t see any new species of birds except the huge crows that perpetually seem to dot the Japanese urban areas. The whole day, each time I went out I would be assaulted by this deafening sound but mercifully it stopped in the evening. I went to bed thinking that this is just one of those unresolved mysteries of Japan to add to my list. But that was not the end of it. I got up the next morning and the first thing that I heard was that sound again. This went on for three days till I thought I would go mad with the suspense and the noise. None of my Japanese colleagues seemed bothered by it; no one mentioned it and I wondered if they would think their Indian colleague has gone bonkers if I mention a weird sound that I hear as soon as I step outdoors.

I was put out of my misery after a few days when I went out to lunch with one of my Japanese colleagues and she casually said “Oh it really feels like summer now that the cicadas are singing non-stop”. I stared at her I total disbelief. Was that the sound of the cicadas? Were those innocuous looking bugs capable of emitting such shrill, ear drum piercing sound? And honestly how can the Japanese consider it singing!

Apparently, the cicadas that seem to live underground and incubate for years on end get out of their stupor in summer and invade Japan like an enormous dirt colored army. The ‘music’ that they make is actually their love song. They obviously don’t believe in wasting even a moment of their short lives over ground because they spend their days lustily singing for their mate from sunrise to sunset. Once they find their mate and the female lays the eggs, the cicadas quietly wither away and die leaving behind flaky wings and shells that carpet all areas near trees and make a crunchy autumny sound as you walk on them.

I never got used to the sound. For me it just made a shrill unpleasant background noise I could do nothing about and once the cicadas started dying, I did my best to side step over their crusty bodies that littered the ground. Strangely, the Japanese kids seem to be rather fond of these bugs. While kids from other countries spend their summer holidays swimming or riding bicycles the kids in Japan spend their summer afternoons chasing cicadas with butterfly nets. You can see them standing in groups under trees, flapping their nets about and trying to coax the cicadas to fly down. I don’t really understand why they want them as pets because after a few weeks the cicadas would be dead anyway.

In Japanese culture, the cicadas represent the concept of ‘Mujo’ or the impermanence of all things. Naturally, the Japanese poets with their preoccupation with loneliness and death and the transient nature of this world find the cicadas a fascinating topic to wax poetic about.

Basho, the famous Haiku poet sums it up perfectly in these two Haikus:

A cicada shell
it sang itself
utterly away.

And I so agree with Basho when he describes the sound the cicadas make.

Stillness -
the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks

Whatever the cultural or philosophical significance of the cicadas, to me they will always be those cacophonous creatures that almost drown all my other memories of a Japanese summer.
 

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