By Avi Landau
Newcomers to Tsukuba are usually taken aback by the intense and inescapable chirping of cicadas (semi) in late summer. Though some find it thrilling and ALIVE, for many, the pulsating whir these insects whip up can be mind-numbing, or at the other extreme nerve-wracking. For many Japanese, however, who can often differentiate the particular sounds created by the most common varieties, the cicada is a cherished symbol of summer, which not only indicates the season, but also, depending on which type is singing or at what volume, the time of day. Also, along with the cherry blossom, these creatures, who spend but a few above-ground days LIVING THEIR LIVES AT FULL THROTTLE before quickly falling away, represent that most quintessential Japanese concept, MUJO (無常), the passing nature of all things.
Japan’s greatest poets have used these fast-living, short (above-ground)-lived summer icons to evoke the season, as well as sadness or loneliness. A poem that most Japanese know by heart is the haiku by Basho which goes： 閑かさや岩にしみ入る蝉の声 (shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi iru semi no koe), which I translate as “In the stillness, the cry of cicadas permeates the stones”. Besides this classic, there are dozens of other well-known poems which use the cicada or the empty shells of molted nymphs (out of which cicadas emerge) as key words. The empty shells are especially powerful symbols of transformation and rebirth.
There is a charming etiological myth explaining the semi’s incessant crying which is related to the great Buddhist priest Kukai (Kobo Daishi 774-835). It is the story of Hime Haru Zemi, a princess who falls in love with the brilliant monk and wants to be by his side. Since it was impossible for them to stay together, he fashioned an image of himself out of a tree trunk. As he departed, she climbed to the top of this wood carving, clinging to it and straining to see him, crying all the while. She has been clinging to the tree trunks and crying every summer since.
Fascination with semi starts early and strikes deep roots. Japanese children love catching insects. A daytime stroll in any of Tsukuba’s parks or along any of its pedestrian paths during summer vacation will give evidence to that fact. Armed with nets and green insect cages they excitedly search for beetles, dragonflies, or cicadas. Today I watched a security guard leave his post to help some kids snare some semi which were just out of reach.
Because cicada symbolism has become so natural for the Japanese, fans of Japanese film and animation should take special note, as often summer is evoked by inserting cicada sound effects into the sound-track. I have heard that when these films are dubbed into other languages, these sounds are cut, as they have no meaning for foreign viewers and can be misconstrued as static or white noise. Off hand I can name the film Ijintachi to no Natsu (a summer ghost story) or the recent Semi Shigure as examples of films which effectively employ the sound effect.
Today I asked some friends if they could tell the difference between the different cicada calls. All of them said that they could and enthusiastically talked of what cicadas meant to them. These are the types which I found out are most familiar:
MIN MIN ZEMI that go MIN MIN in the daytime and like to cling high up in the trees;
HIGURASHI that go KANA KANA KANA, evoking a sad feeling in the early morning or evening;
ABURA ZEMI that go JI JI JI JI in the daytime;
TSUKUTSUKU BOSHI that go TSUKUTSUKUBOSHI;
NI NI ZEMI that go chi CHI chi CHI in the daytime.
If like me , these explanation do nothing to help you identify the different types of cicadas ,you can probably make more progress if you check this site.
There is no avoiding the cries of the cicadas, but if you want to have a full SEMI experience, why don’t you start from Doho Park and walk down to Tsukuba University using the pedestrian path.