Life in Japan: cicadas and the sound of summer

Japanese cicada

These little guys provide the soundtrack to the Japanese summer

It’s been a long, hot summer in northeast Asia, with Korea and Japan both suffering record-breaking heatwaves. Things are finally cooling off somewhat here in Seoul, but my recent research trip to Japan coincided with their hottest temperatures on record and it was ridiculous, worse even than the summer I spent in the cauldron of Kyoto while working there a few years ago.

Still, summer in Japan has its charms – al fresco beers by Kyoto’s Kamo River, festivals big and small, great hiking (if you go high enough to beat the heat), beach life (depending where you are), and just generally a much more active social scene than in the colder months. And it’s all soundtracked by the ever-present chorus of cicadas, the amazing alien-looking insects that emerge from the ground as nymphs every summer, shed their exoskeletons, sprout wings, and spend a few weeks making more noise than you’d ever believe for such a small creature.

The lifecycle’s more fully explained in this Attenborough video, but using North American cicadas which only emerge every 17 years – the Japanese ones have shorter lifecycles and are an annual phenomenon (him cock-teasing the male cicada by clicking his fingers (from 2:55) is pretty funny):

Amazing insects, anyway – I once saw a pair flying around inside a convenience store, chased by a couple of clerks trying to catch them with plastic bags (to put them outside), and clearly communicating to each other in clicks and chirps. And the discarded nymph cases you find lying around are fascinating (pic here) – kids go round hunting for and collecting them. The one pictured in this post chose my balcony as the place to end its own lifecycle, so I could take these closeup shots to show just how alien they really look.

Japanese cicada

Take me to your leader!

Anyway, their shrilling really is the sound of the Japanese summer – it’s heavily used in anime soundtracks, and when you hear it you know the characters are sweating in the heat. The classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion’s set in a post-apocalyptic future in which Japan suffers a never-ending summer, and the cicadas are always there in the background:

Here’s a video someone recorded in a Tokyo suburb to capture the sound (I’m writing this post to the sound of this video):

Even right in the city it sounds like this – anywhere there are trees there are cicadas. If you go into a small local park the noise is incredible, even more so in places like the Meiji Shrine. There’s a variety of different calls contributing to the orchestra – this post has embedded videos of the different calls of each cicada species in Japan.

To sign off I’ll leave you with one of the most famous haiku penned by the master of the format, Matsuo Basho, as he sat listening to the cicadas at Yamadera Temple (Yamagata Prefecture) way back in 1690:

閑かさや
岩にしみ入る
蝉の声

Shizukasa-ya
Iwa-ni shimi-iru
Semi-no-koe

Stillness
Seeping into the rock
Cicadas’ cry

—-

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