The dead bodies are appearing more frequently these days. On the side of the road, under trees, in puddles after a shower of rain. Lying on their plump bellies, eyes bulging but unseeing. Blue-green marks on their heads, wings shimmering. Sometimes partially flattened by a car or bike. All of them are so much bigger than you might expect. Cicadas.
Millions of them. Every summer they crawl up from the depths of the soil after years spent underground, growing, biding time, waiting for their turn to come up and sing in a tree. Their chorus began with the warm weather and they’ve been singing through the rainy season into the hot, steamy days of the typhoons.
Cicadas in a Japanese summer mean hundreds of insects chirping and humming and whirring wherever there might be trees. Even though we don’t have so many of them in Perth, they sound like summer to me. They’ve become the soundtrack to my life here, so constant and pervasive I feel like there was never a time before the cicadas. Sometimes it’s a delightful chirp that perfectly accompanies a summer evening on the balcony. Other times it’s a thunderous, pulsating descant that creaks up and down a scale like an engine speeding up and slowing down.
They seem shrillest in the early mornings, which I discovered when I started getting up just after 6am to do the national radio exercises with a group of old people in my apartment complex. It started like this. One Sunday morning, over the cicadas, the sound of a radio announcer’s voice followed by a jaunty tune not dissimilar to that of the BBC radio series ‘The Archers’ floated up to my bedroom, where a fan was blowing air over my half-asleep form and out the open screen door next to my futon. The song meandered into whatever dream I was having, and for a few moments I luxuriated in the feeling of being just awake enough to know that I was still asleep. Suddenly I sat up. “Calisthenics!” I said out loud. “It’s calisthenics!” (Whether that’s what actually came out, given I had been sleeping a moment earlier, who can say, but that’s certainly what I meant.)
Radio calisthenics is one of those uniquely Japanese things that I wanted to do as soon as I heard about it. Every morning at 6:30am, an NHK broadcast of gentle exercises plays on radios around the nation. During summer, in homes and parks and school grounds and – in my case – danchi tennis courts, people young and old gather to spend ten minutes moving together. The rajio taiso, as it’s called in Japanese, has been running nearly uninterrupted since 1928. It’s an institution. I’d heard of these local gatherings, but had no idea where to find one until I was woken from my slumber. Of course I had to join in.
So there I was, stretching and swinging my arms and doing star jumps at 6:30am every morning with a dozen or so old Japanese people. I felt so nervous – completely out of proportion to the task – when I went down the first morning and asked if I could join in. What if I was meant to sign up beforehand? What if I couldn’t understand what they said? What if they all looked at me like the tall, pale, redheaded foreigner that I am? These little apprehensions come up from time to time in a country where I don’t know all the customs or speak the language fluently, but the only thing to do is dive in. It panned out just fine, of course. (It always does, in some way or other.) They happily gave me a card with space cartoons on it to get stamped every day, and I shyly crossed the court, receiving a few bows and smiles from people as I passed. And after a week of seeing the same faces every morning, I felt a little bit more a part of things.
My radio taiso only ran a little over a week, but summer continues on and with it the cicadas, no matter that they seem to be dropping like the proverbial. I’m starting to wonder when they stop. Do they ever stop? Will summer go on forever? I won’t mind so much if it does. It’s humid yes, upwards of 80% many days, but I love the small freedoms of summer. Never having to leave the house with more than one layer of clothing, cycling the streets on balmy evenings, getting the washing dry within the afternoon, that lovely kind of napping you do on hot afternoons when time feels like treacle. I don’t love the sweaty upper lip any time I walk for more than five minutes but it’s a small price to pay for summer festivals with pounding drums and swirling dancers, and ice cold miso cucumbers and kakigori shaved ice, and thunderous rainstorms and lush greenery, and radio taiso and singing cicadas. I can feel the end approaching – for the cicadas too – but at least for me, there are more summers to look forward to.