Cicadas as the Meaning of Life?

The other night I was walking by the football field late at night and saw the snowfall blowing in front of the field lights.


Flurries cascading

Against stadium lights

Welcome the night’s silence


We began our discussion of Japanese culture with two key terms—evanescence and form. These concepts seem to contradict one another at first glance. Evanescence, known as hakanasa or mujō in Japanese, pertains to the ever-changing, impermanent world, where all things come and go, sometimes for only a fleeting second. On the other hand, actions and behaviors, particularly in Japan, have a special form associated with them. When you enter a house or a school, you take off your shoes; when you write a haiku or tanka, you make sure to write only the correct number of syllables in each line. Combining evanescence and form yields a world that constantly changes in the exact same way. We learned that classical Japanese poets often used the epithet of the cicada shell (utsusemi) in their poetry to embody this dichotomy (Inouye lecture 1/23). Similarly, our class talked about how most Japanese people believe in fundamentally animistic principles. When a person feels that a particular tree produces an emotional response in them, they might wrap a shimenawa rope around its trunk to declare that tree as sacred. We made the important distinction that “in early Japan…symbols were not understood symbolically” (Kitagawa, 45). That is to say that the sanctified tree does not point to the heavens or glorify an idea in another realm, rather the tree presents itself as sacred. I found it particularly interesting to think about the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan as another example of matching the fleeting world with repetitive forms (Inouye text, 18). Coming into this course, I assumed we would be talking about Japanese pop culture, food preferences, and other seemingly cultural characteristics, but I think I can buy into how evanescence and form will impact those aspects of Japanese culture. Instead I leave class tired from a mental workout. Who knows how this semester will go? It was only the first week.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier


The epithet of the cicada shell, or utsusemi, seamlessly combines evanescence and form.

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