The Cicada&039s Chirp, and What It Means to Japan

Summer is usually associated with a blaring sun, rising temperatures, vacations, and finding all sorts of ways to cool off. Rarely is it associated with a bug – unless you live in Japan, that is.

Japan is all too familiar with the sound of cicadas. Their hum rings loudly during summers, and you either love it or hate it. In Japan, you have no choice but to hear it, as it sings all day, every day, almost everywhere – so long as that summer sun is up.

What is A Cicada?

A cicada is an insect; also called “semi” in Japanese. It is classified under the Animalia kingdom, Euarthropoda phylum, Insecta class, Hemiptera order (true bugs), Cicadomorpha infra order, and the Cicadoidea superfamily. They are categorized in the same suborder as froghoppers and leafhoppers, which is the Auchenorrhyncha. All over the world are spread 1,300 species of this superfamily of a bug, and many have yet to be properly described.

Depending on the species, the cicada takes 2 to 17 years developing underground before they emerge as nymphs. While in the soil, they consume sap that is emitted from the roots of nearby trees. Once they instinctively know it’s time to crawl out (some say they get cues from soil temperature) they then come out and climb up trees to slowly molt into their flying forms.

The diet of the cicada, when it’s in its flying form, is still pure sap, or xylem. They only have a beak and rostrum to make up their mouth, and this pulls the xylem from branches and roots.

What do Cicadas, in General, Look Like?

If you examine a cicada closely, you’ll notice that it has beady eyes that are far apart from each other. Their wings have membranes and have very short antennae that poke out near their mouths. The size of the cicada depends, the girth of its body and its color depends on which species is being examined, as these characteristics vary. There are cicadas that are mainly white, others are yellow and red, while some are green and black – and that’s only the beginning.

It is important to note that cicadas are not to be confused with crickets, as crickets belong to a completely different order, which is called “Orthoptera”, which also holds Katydids and Grasshoppers. These usually have bigger hind legs and use a different method for making a noise called “stridulation” Cicadas make noise entirely differently; they shake their tymbals (a sound producing membrane) in quick succession to make a special sound.

Tanna Japonensis; The Cicada Species Found in Japan

The kind of cicada that is mostly responsible for such song-filled Japanese summers is the Tanna japonesis or “Higurashi” in Japanese; written as “蜩, 茅蜩, ひぐらし”. Sometimes referred to as the evening cicada, this species is not exclusive to Japan but can be found in other parts of East Asia as well.

The Tanna japonesis species falls under the Cicadidae family, under the Tanna genus. It was named by William Lucas Distant in 1892, and has two more subspecies; the T. j. ishigakiana (also named by Distant in 1892) and the T. j. japonensis, named by Kato in 1960.

This insect, if male and fully grown, can measure 28 to 38 millimeters long. Its female counterparts measure from 21 to 24 millimeters long. You can tell the male and female apart by looking at their abdomens, as the male’s abdomen is bigger, both horizontally and vertically.

The male is also much louder and more reverberating, mainly because of its highly developed abdominal cavity. Compared to other cicada species, this species possesses reddish brown hues. Around its compound eye, thorax, and center are shades of green. Its cousin species that take residence in the mountains are usually darker in color.

What is The Habitat of the Cicada?

The cicada is a hardy creature; it can live in both subtropical and temperate conditions, reaching all the way up to Japan’s colder region Hokkaido, all the way down to the warmer Amami Oshima. As for the kinds of forests they live in, you’ll easily find them in forests with cypress, hardwood, and cedar trees. Also, in terms of landscape, the cicada is not choosy about whether it lives on a mountain or plain.

The Different Kinds of Cicada in Japan

There are many kinds of cicada in Japan – more than 30 of them, supposedly. Here are a few of their formal species names.

  • Auritibicen flammatus is a version which is primarily made of a mocha brown color with a black upper back and red eyes.
  • Male Yezoterpnosia Nigricosta has specks of green along with a primarily brown body that fades to black, with black eyes.
  • The Yezoterpnosia Nigricosta looks almost the same as the Male Tanna japonensis, but the Male Tanna japonesis has noticeably greener eyes.
  • The Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata has a black body with specks of white.
  • The Auritibicen kyushyuensis is mainly black, with streaks of yellow, blotches of red near its head, and red eyes.

The Japanese have different names for their cicadas too. There are cicadas that are populous, while there are those that are rare. There’s the min-min-zemi or the Hyalessa maculaticollis, It is called “min-min-zemi” as an onomatopoeia. If you listen carefully to the way that it chirps, you will hear it distinctively sing, “min, min, min”. They are usually colored black and green.

Next is the tsuku-tsuku-boshi (Meimuna opalifera) – again, an onomatopoeia for the way this species chirps. It is said that their chirps are a reminder of summer ending soon, and a new school year full of homework waiting ahead.

The Higurashi has a much more monotonous sounding chirp compared to the last two, as the lyrics to its chirp sound like, “kanakanakanakana”. There are haikus written about these kinds of cicadas, which tend to sing during relaxing hot, quiet summer nights.

The kumazemi (Cryptotympana facialis) has a lower pitched song and is a very common (and giant) cicada, which is why you may be familiar with the song it sings. A population that is currently being outnumbered by other species is the aburazemi, or Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata, which has a song most akin to the chirp of a bird.

Not all cicadas produce the same song because their bodies and cavity characteristics differ. There is no trademark cicada noise or unifying sound. Each species’ sound differs in pitch, rhythm, patterns, and melody.

Research on The Sounds the Cicada Makes

Cicadas have had the attention of humans for a long time now, capturing both the images of an endearing bug and a noisy pest. Scientists used modern research and technology to intricately understand how the cicada makes these different patterns of noise by measuring their vibrations with special lasers.

The exoskeleton of the cicada in vibration, clicking together, is what apparently makes the sound whenever the cicada moves its body in a certain way. The chirps of a cicada are not consistent. They are just the byproduct of the cicada distorting its body, which is why when it combines with the sounds of other cicadas, it’s a chorale of loud noise – or as some prefer to call it, music.

Why Do the Cicadas Make That Noise?

The rowdiest and loudest sex of the cicadas are male ones, as they make noise to attract female cicadas to mate with them. When they do attract one successfully, the female cicada approves of their mating calls with wing snapping. Here’s a fun fact – when the male cicada sees that the female cicada is responding to its mating call, it lowers the volume of its mating call; a personification of which would be a flirt. Another fun fact – cicadas can be incredibly noisy, but they switch off their hearing so they don’t get affected by the noise they make, and the noise surrounding them.

Are Cicadas Harmful?

If you’re worried that these insects can bite and/or sting you in any way, you can stop worrying. They won’t bite you like the mosquito does, or buzz around like a fly, or sting like a preying hornet. All they really do is sing, mate, molt, and suck the sap out of trees.

If you do find that a cicada is on you and may be trying to ignorantly suck the sap out of your skin, just gently brush it off, and it won’t fight back. They don’t have any jaws to clamp down your skin, but you may mistake the other rough parts of their bodies such as their ovipositors and sharp feet as something that could hurt you.

However, near cicadas sometimes lurk cicada killer wasps. These creatures hang around cicadas because that’s what they prey on. Cicada killer wasps aren’t aggressive towards humans because they’re busy focusing on killing cicadas, but they will fight back if you aggravate them, and can deliver a nasty bite and sting.

Cicadas and their Significance in Japanese Culture

Cicadas have been around for quite some time in Japan, in effect, they’ve been included in classical Japanese literature. An example of this is in “The Tale of Genji”. He uses the shell of cicada as a metaphor for his tale. The story goes, Genji went to the room of a woman he liked, whose name was Utsusemi. Instead of successfully surprising Utsusemi with his presence, all he was greeted by was a robe she left behind. He called this story “The Lady of the Locust Shell”, where he likens her robe as an empty cicada shell in his poetry.

The Sound Cicadas Make: The Japanese Symbol of Summer

The Japanese have also always taken a liking to things that are fleeting. From youthfulness to cherry blossoms, they understand that these are symbols of the ever-changing tides of nature… and the cicadas are no exemption to this. The reason these bugs are likened to romantic notions is that they sing incessantly during only one season, attaching themselves as a characteristic of summer. In simpler terms – it wouldn’t be summer yet if the cicadas aren’t singing; enjoy this moment, because it won’t last long.

Cicada Hunting, Photographing Them, and The Dreaded Semi Bakudan

Many children – particularly boys, look forward to summer because it’s been a pastime for them to hunt, catch, collect, and play with the different cicada. These bugs aren’t sold in shops, so it’s a true conquest to capture them.

After catching the bugs with nets and putting them in little containers, the children compare their finds and observe the different patterns that go on the cicada. However, some species of cicada have threatened populations, so it’s best that they are set free after being captured, or are simply photographed instead of being caught.

Kids particularly get a good laugh (or, perhaps, shock) from the semi bakudan, or cicada bombs. Because summer brings so many of the cicada out that they’re all over the floor, it isn’t rare that you would accidentally step on a live one, setting it off into a chirping frenzy. They’re called “semi bakudan” because they’re likened to little bombs suddenly exploding when they’re stepped on, and gives almost everyone a jump-scare when they go off.

Cicada in Anime: A Trope

If you consume a lot of audio-visual Japanese content such as anime tv shows, films, and movies, then you’re likely to have heard cicadas sing in the background, or as bgm (background music). This is done often in these productions to indicate that the story is unraveling during summertime, or that the environment is particularly hot. The kind of chirping used could also be a symbol that the medium is trying to convey, such as the end of summer, or the loneliness of the night.

Listen to What the Cicada Sounds Like

If you want to know the different sounds cicadas make, you can do two things – visit Japan during the summer time and hunt for them in places they’re likely to populate, such as parks and forests, or anywhere with trees. The other way is to go to YouTube and search the different species. Listening to them sing their own songs can be a charming experience, as these harmless bugs unknowingly have become a season staple due to their nonstop mating calls.

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