What’s a Japanese summer without the noisy cicada?

Special status

The distinctive sound, appearance and short lifespan of cicadas have earned them a special place in Japanese culture, and the insects have appeared in numerous pieces of art and literature over the years.

The title character in the classic novel “The Tale of Genji” likens the way one of his lovers drops her robe to the way a cicada sheds its skin, while one of poet Matsuo Basho’s most famous haiku includes the lines “shizukesa ya iwa ni shimi iru, semi no koe” (“in the quietude seeping into the rock, the call of cicadas”).

Internationally acclaimed artist Makoto Aida, whose 1990 work “Electric Pole” features an empty cicada shell on a gray telegraph pole streaked with dog urine, believes the insects can be an evocative symbol.

“In my picture, you have the gray pole, the mark of a dog that has gone, and the remains of a cicada that has flown away,” Aida says. “Normally, a cicada would rest on a tree. It wouldn’t emerge from its shell on a telegraph pole — it’s fiction. But the picture is meant to convey the emptiness of a modern Tokyo filled with asphalt and concrete. The hollow cicada shell is meant to express emptiness.”

The call of cicadas can often be heard on TV shows and anime. According to Aida, the sound serves as a shorthand method of conveying the atmosphere of the Japanese summer to audiences.

“Japanese summers are not clear or refreshing,” he says. “They’re so hot and humid that you feel like you’re going crazy. Then you have this huge number of cicadas all making this noise at the same time. It really stands out, so if you’re trying to convey the sense of it being the height of summer in a movie or an anime, you can include the sound of cicadas and everyone will understand straight away.”

Aida even goes as far as to say there is “a stench of death” surrounding cicadas in the public imagination.

He notes that Bon — the annual Buddhist ritual where the souls of dead ancestors are said to revisit household altars — and the anniversary of the country’s World War II surrender both fall around Aug. 15. Personal memories or TV portrayals of these events are, therefore, invariably accompanied by a chorus of screeching cicadas, forming an indelible mental association for many people.

Stuff of inspiration

Not everyone views cicadas in such a morbid light, however. Museum curator Nomura says the insects have a number of specific features that have even inspired technological innovations.

Cicada wings have anti-reflective properties that have helped researchers develop materials to reduce glare on computer screens and smartphones. The wings also have anti-bacterial, self-cleaning and waterproof properties that have driven the development of other products.

“There are 35 species of cicada in Japan, but each one is completely different,” Nomura says. “That’s very interesting.”

Each species varies in terms of shape, size, color, call, habitat, behavior, what time of year they emerge and what type of trees they suck sap from. The most common species in Japan include the abura zemi, min-min zemi, kuma zemi and nii-nii zemi.

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