It was a hot, heavy day in mid-August at the Bamboo Bathhouse. Even the slight breeze felt oppressive.
Kiku was talking to Miko-chan in the garden, when he realised that he was shouting to be heard over the deafening sound of insects. “Those crickets sure are loud!,” he yelled over to Boss Panda, the owner of the Bathhouse and guardian to the orphaned friends.
“They aren’t crickets, they are cicadas, known as ‘semi’ in Japan”, said the bear. “In fact, if you look at your seasonal almanac, you will see today is marked as the five day period when the Higurashi begin to cry out.
The Higurashi cicada is known as the ‘kanakanazemi’ for the ‘kanakanakana’ sound it makes…” Higurashi means ‘evening cicada’ because it tends to cry at the end of the humid summer day, whereas most cicadas sing in the daytime. They don’t have long – about a month, so maybe that is why they shout so loud. “A month?” asked Miko-chan. “They live underground for most of their lives as nymphs, but when they emerge onto tree trunks they shed their shell one last time and emerge as adults, then the males must sing to find a mate and begin the next generation”, Boss Panda explained.
“How do they manage the incredible volume?” asked Kiku, who couldn’t quite believe how loud the sound was. Boss Panda explained, “it is the males who make the sound, by contracting noisemaking membranes found on each side of the abdomen known as ‘tymbals’. As their muscles contract the tymbals buckle inwards and cause a click sound known as a pulse. When the muscles relax, the tymbal goes back to shape, creating another click. The clicks can be combined to make different sounding calls, and are amplified by the body. Rapid repetition of this produces that wave of sound that we all hear.”
Boss Panda continued thoughtfully. “Most Japanese people find the sound very evocative, clearly embodying a sense of transience or Mujou (無常), with their short lives above ground. They are often used in poetry and literature to evoke the season and are connected to a feeling of sadness or loneliness. There is a haiku poem by Basho that clearly expresses the sadness of such transcience:
A cicada shell:
It sang itself
Utterly away.
[声にみな泣きしまふてや蝉の穀 ]
(Koe ni mina/ naki shimafute ya/ semi no kara)
“Wow. They are quite impressive insects”, remarked Kiku, “are they easy to spot?” “Sometimes you can find them on almost every tree”, said Boss Panda, “and it is a very popular pastime for children to find and identify them over the summer vacation. What makes them even more fascinating to children is the chance of finding a cicada bomb…”
Miko-chan began to look concerned. “A cicada bomb?” she asked warily. He smiled. “Known as a ‘semi-bakudan’ (蝉爆弾), these are cicadas that look like they are dead, often upside down on the pavement, but in fact can burst to life suddenly, making an incredible racket and frightening anyone nearby. They often startle people walking their dogs at this time of year. Children find these things very exciting. But Mama Kojin has put a very helpful note up on the wall to help you to avoid one…”
Miko-chan was no longer listening and had suddenly become very pale. Kiku began to ask if she was feeling OK, when she ran from the room.
“What on earth?’ exclaimed Boss Panda, and the pair went into the bathhouse to find her. Inside the building, the sounds of the insects receded a little and they began to hear what sounded like beads falling to the floor. In a passageway, they found Miko-chan hurriedly throwing star candy known as konpeito onto the floor. “Miko-chan!!! What are you doing?” gasped Kiku.
As he peered around the little shrine doll however, he could see that she was throwing them at DokiDoki Daruma, who was softly snoring as he had his late afternoon nap. “Sssshhhhhh”, Miko hissed at the startled pair, “Don’t wake him up! You know what he did when that butterfly landed on his nose – what do you think he will do if a semi-bakudan goes off nearby???”
So worried was she at the thought of another insect related Daruma explosion, that she had decided to cover the little grumpy doll in his favourite candy, a known method for preventing his spectacular outbursts and keeping him docile…
Boss Panda and Kiku began to laugh so much, they turned and quickly returned to the garden. Kiku remarked “In fact, cicadas are a bit like DokiDoki Daruma if you think about it – you never know when they are going to go off!”
Extra information
Some other types of cicada found in Japan are:
One of the larger species is appropriately named the bear-cicada, with a mostly black body and some bright green elements to the wings.
These have camouflaged wings, rather than the clear wings of most other species.
A smaller variety with a golden head and dark body, the cry is thought to sound like “It’s really regrettable!” (つくづく惜しい) and so reminds children that summer is almost over and it will soon be time to go back to school.
A middle sized cicada, they have short fat black bodies with beautiful green markings. This is the cicada sound most people outside of Japan are familiar with as it is used in films and anime to add to the atmosphere of summer.
A smaller variety of lighter colour and black and white mottled wings.