The Sound of Summer

Summer in Japan is a sweaty, sweaty affair.  It’s hot and oppressively humid, and many homes – like the apartment I lived in – don’t have air conditioning (nor do most classrooms).

And yet, I feel a certain nostalgia for the Japanese summer.  In particular, I remember the sound of summer quite fondly.  Take this commercial for watermelons.

A bit overdone and saccharine, but still evocative, and the little girl is a cutie.  This is what they’re saying, by the way:

Girl:  “Not yet?”
Father:  “Not yet.”
Girl:  “Not yet?”
Father:  “Not yet”
Father:  “Now!”
Father:  “Summer is delicious, isn’t it?”
Girl:  “Summer is delicious, isn’t it?”

But the dialogue is beside the point. Well, it’s beside my point anyway.  The scene is established as taking place in summer before anyone speaks and before visual cues are provided.  How?  In the background, we can hear cicadas.

Every summer, Japan abounds with cicadas.  Lots and lots of astoundingly noisy cicadas.  More than 30 species inhabit the archipelago, and each has a unique call.  But the cicada that is most strongly associated with summer is the one you can hear in the commercial, the minmin-zemi.

Its call is distinctive and it’s most active during the hottest weather, so the minmin-zemi is the unchallenged icon of summer in Japan.  Still, it’s only one part of the chorus.

The tsukutsukubōshi also has a distinctive song.

Its name is onomatopoeic, as is minmin. Semi (“seh mee”) means cicada.

Meanwhile, many varieties have more monotonous calls, as with the kuma-zemi (“bear cicada”).

But while these three types of cicada blare away during the day, twilight belongs to the higurashi.

I have vivid memories of summer evenings at my apartment in the mountains north of Kobe.  As the heat of the day softened, the breeze through my windows would carry the quiet sounds of neighbors preparing dinner or listening to the evening news.  And as the sun sank in the sky, the higurashis’ haunting cries would begin to echo in the warm air.


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