Coming from the UK where the largest insect you’re likely to encounter is a slightly overweight bumblebee, I was quite taken aback the first time I saw a “semi,” or cicada in English, in Japan. Having arrived in the middle of summer, at first the ear-piercing racket coming from the tree outside my window drove me to distraction, but over the years I came to enjoy the sound these little bugs made, even if their appearance still gives me the creeps.
As it happens, I’m not the only one who appreciates these little bugs’ songs. Cicadas hold special significance here in Japan, and are considered to be almost synonymous with summer, so join us after the jump for five quick-fire facts about Japan’s summer bug.
1. “The sound of summer”
Even with the intense heat and humidity of the rainy season in June and July, it is not until the cicadas start chirping that people consider summer to have truly arrived. Cicadas are so associated with summer that it’s rare to see a summer scene in a Japanese TV show or anime that doesn’t feature the sound of them chirping in the background, and even video games like Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” series include their song during the virtual summer months.
As those who live in Japan or countries where cicadas can be found in the wild will know, however, cicadas can be noisy as hell. While they’re not quite as irritating as they are portrayed in popular anime “Namiuchigiwa no Muromi-san.”
If there happen to be a few of them clinging to a tree outside your apartment or office, the noise can be almost deafening. (Fun bonus fact: the reason cicadas don’t annoy themselves or go deaf while calling is because they can “switch off” their hearing.)
2. Cicadas even show up in classical Japanese literature
In Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” one of the first women to ever resist the titular protagonist is known as 空蝉 (Utsusemi or “empty cicada”, or more slightly more elegantly, “The Lady of the Locust Shell”). In the book, Genji attempts to surprise Utsusemi in her chambers, but after his plan is foiled he finds only one of the robes she casts off to evade him. He later sits down to write a poem about Utsusemi, describing her “cicada shell” robe.
3. Cicada hunting is still a super popular summer pastime for kids
Bug catching remains a popular hobby in Japan, and it’s not uncommon to see little kids carrying giant nets and with bug boxes hanging from their necks in local parks. Cicadas are one of the few big bugs that can’t be bought at pet shops or supermarkets, and little kids enjoy the challenge of catching bugs that can “go off” at any time.
4. Cicadas’ songs are very different depending on the species
There are some 30 different types of cicada in Japan, and each one’s song sounds that little bit different to the last. The cicada song most often used in TV and anime, though, has to be that of the “minmin-zemi.”
5. “Semi Bakudan” are genuinely scary things
The only thing worse than stepping on an empty husk or a dead cicada in the street is walking by one that looks dead but suddenly twitches to life and starts skittering across the pavement making an almighty racket. These 蝉爆弾 (“semi bakudan,” or “cicada bomb”) become an all-too-common sight around this time of year, with everyone from grown men to tiny dogs out for a walk being startled by a cicada bomb at some point during the summer.
Love them or hate them, cicadas have a very special significance here in Japan, and summer wouldn’t be the same without them.
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