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Letters from Tokyo, August 2021: Cicada cry

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

I caught cicadas in my grandparents’ garden when I was five years old. This was in Morioka City in August, the first full month I lived in Japan before attending kindergarten.

It was hot. I used a lightweight long-necked net to capture them and kept them in a green plastic cage my grandfather had bought for me. The cicadas seemed huge and powerful and I loved looking into their eye bulbs with the little black dots in the middle.

When you held them from behind by the tips of their wings, their legs clawed at the air then stopped. Their faces looked like they could have been dangerous insects, biting or stinging, but at the last minute decided not to be. So they just stared back at you.

There is the famous Basho haiku about cicada cries hiding the nearness of their death but I didn't know anything about that then. I just loved their eyes and wings and the perfect ghost husks they left behind, clinging to the trees as if they were still alive inside.

Through my teens, August often meant a two-week trip to Japan with my mother. Summer vacation for American kids is nearly three months but for Japanese kids it’s one: August. My mother took me in August so I could meet some Morioka students on summer break and speak English with them at my grandparents’ house.

As I got older, I complained about the trips. In the US, August meant time to practice drumming with my high school rock band and go on walks down the railroad tracks with my one good friend and read ghost stories in the library. I didn't want to lose that time by being in Japan. But I always went.

Years later, my first full month living in Japan as an adult without my mother was also an August. I lived in Osaka. A friend of my mother’s family, my age, took me to Kyoto to see the Daimonji Festival, with its huge fire kanji characters burning in the mountains at night on three sides of the city, guiding ghosts back to heaven. We were mashed together in a thick crowd and sweated so much it felt like swimming in air. The cicadas buzzed and sizzled all around us. Their sound made the heat and fires feel urgent.

I've now lived in Tokyo for over twenty years. These days I spend most of August indoors, surrounded by books and notebooks and the whisper of a wall-mounted air conditioner. But a few times during each day I'll slide open the glass and screen doors and step onto the balcony to feel the unconditioned air and sunlight, to remind myself that they're natural and real and should be a part of me. I try to read outside until I sweat out everything toxic (or so I fantasize), soaking my shirt and the creases of my shorts, or until I get so drowsy and fatigued by the humidity that I can't comprehend words anymore and keep re-reading the same paragraph.

The cicadas cry from the sparse trees and thickets nestled between Tokyo apartment blocks, still potent, urgent. I no longer catch them with a net but in their sound I can hear the desperation Basho was writing about. I feel it, too.

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