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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on June 18, 2018
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 91] June 18, 2018

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 91]
June 18, 2018
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal insect:
Feeling the transition: "Cicada"

:: 1. Seasonal insect

Here is a "Waka", Japanese traditional poem, written by KI no Tomonori,
compiled in Kokin Wakashu, (a collection of Japanese poems from the
9th century), No.751.
"Semino koe Kikeba kanashina Natsugoromo Usukuya hitono Naranto omoeba"
Interpretation: I feel sad when the summer comes and hear cicadas
singing as I get the feeling that Your interest in me might become very
faint like a summery thin kimono just like the cicada's wings along
with the arrival of autumn.

Just passed mid July at the time that the rainy sky turns to a summery
sky, cicadas crawl out aboveground after the long growing period in the
soil and let people know that summer has arrived with loud singing.
There is an episode in Meiji period (19c) in which that people who came
to Japan from Europe where not many cicada inhabited asked why Japanese
trees sing. It shows how much cicadas sing with their all strength in
hot summer in Japan.

Despite it singing annoyingly loud with its tiny body, Japanese people
living today can't help feeling vitality from the cicadas singing.
Cicada has appeared as a frail object in the Japanese literature since
Man'yo period (7c). "Utsusemi" means cicada's shell. It originated
from the word "Ustushiomi 現臣 (or現人)", which means people living in
this life or overlapping people's lives. The word is used as a pillow
word to show those meanings.

Here is another Waka, written by Princess Oku in "Man'yoshu", No.165,
"Utsusomino Hitoni aru wareya Asuyoriwa Nijozanwo Iroseto wagamin"
Interpretation: I who have survived may compare Mt. Nijo to my little
brother from tomorrow.

The Waka above was sung for her brother, Prince Otsu who was executed
on suspicion of rebellion. She wrote it when his corpse was transferred
to Mt. Nijo. The pillow word, "Utsusomi", brings out her hollow feeling
of losing her family.

So as the waka written by KI no Tomonori in the opening paragraph,
"Utsusemi" in the third quire in The Tale of Genji (Japanese literature
about high courtiers in 11th century) is a well known story about a wife
rejecting Hikaru Genji. She throws her summer sheer kimono off to slip
out from him. Thin wings or shell of cicada were the perfect word to
depict the dismal feeling of not being able to bond to someone apparently.

The song of cicadas lets Japanese people know that summer has arrived
and motivate them. It can possibly give them a hotter feeling so this
is also one of the things that people want to escape from as well though.
In spite of that, the ancient Japanese saw emotions and a passage of
lives in the cicada's thin wings or shell rather than from its singing.
Cicada can be seen in cities in Japan but they are unlikely to be seen
in cities in Europe unless going to woods to find them. Why don't you
visit Japan in the summer to hear the cicadas' very loud song?

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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