Category Archives: Week 1: Shell of the Cicada

All of these posts are from week one of the course.

From Utsusemi to mujo. -Qing

First, About the lyrical moment:

I was walking to Lane Hall on Thursday afternoon and saw an ice cream cone lying on the street elegantly.


An ice cream cone

Lying on the street, unmelted

Like a pale new born baby


We talked about utsusemi and animism last week, and the reading for this week focused more on the ideas of hakanasa and a Buddhist world view of impermanence (mujo). Personally, the past experience of being in love as a whole can be summarized as hakanasa. As for the feelings of love, both beginning and ending are uncontrollable, changeable and fleeting. (Inouye27) It disappears so fast and thoroughly that I started to doubt the thing called love actually never existed, and the whole experience of being in love is nothing but a sweet illusion. Shift from hakanasa, Mujo is a broader concept of impermanence that permeates every aspect of life, from dreamlike affection to unreliable human relations (Inouye 31). This Buddhist interpretation of reality explains and provides a solution to our frustrations and sufferings in life. A rather simple takeaway from the readings is that since everything is impermanent, the desire and effort to pursue them will give us frustration sooner or later, and the only way to free ourselves is to stop relying on those external things to reach reality and start to accept whatever life has to offer.

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Evanescence and Form

Thinking about Cicadas

By Songwha Choi

 When I was on my way home in cold weather, I realized that many trees in my garden already had lost their leaves.

         Garden trees without leaves

         Winter’s withered trees

          With having a snowstorm




            In our class, we are going to discuss about “evanescence and form.” (Inouye 1)  Since I was young, I have been curious about these ideas. As an Asian student, when I was in high school, I learned about those two concepts. However, I want to explore them in more detail from our class. Change is balanced by “shape” (kata) to the evanescence. (Inouye 7) It is hard to understand because I have never heard of the idea. According to Professor Inouye, Utsusemi is the essence of change. This image is the Japanese world view. He said that “nothing is permanent, and nothing lasts forever!” That idea makes me take some time for introspection. If everything changes, my life also is limited, but I would not like to think this in a pessimistic way. The poem by Otomo makes me understand Japanese sadness. It is not a bad thing, but rather positive and beautiful. (Lecture 1/23) Even though our lives are fragile or unpredictable, we can be contingent to overcome our weaknesses. Nothing is permanent in this wicked world-not even our troubles. (Charlie Chaplin) I think that after finishing this class, I would have learned a lot and become more insightful in my life.

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Week 1

By Nina Watts

I was standing out in the clump of trees behind Latin Way one night when I looked up at the sky.


Cold wind blows

Bare tree branches sway

Moon shines through the clouds


So far this course is much more philosophical than I expected it to be and I like it. I thought the course would be more focused on the external rather than the core of Japanese philosophy. I love the fact that we’re starting with the idea of evanescence and form. In order to understand a culture, the central philosophy on which it was built is essential. I find the idea of evanescence and form beautiful because of its truth. Everything is always changing, but there is some kind of pattern to the change. This is also a somewhat dark philosophy, because how can something like true love exist when everything, including yourself, is changing? There is a lot to think about concerning the idea. My favorite expression of the concept occurred in the explanation of earthquake-proof buildings in Tokyo: “Rigidity invites disaster. Flexibility enhances survival” (Inouye 6). I assume that we’ll be spending time building upon this foundation, but even then, how can one really understand a culture without living it? Professor Inouye addressed this on the first day of class and I really appreciated that insight.

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Evanescence, Form, and the Form of Evanescence

By Julia Russell

In the late afternoon I opened the shade in my room in Lewis Hall, which faces off campus toward Davis Square, just in time to catch the last few moments of the sunset over Somerville.

The sun’s descent—
Silhouettes of rooftops and trees,
Birds fly in the distance.

I can easily see evanescence and form as two separate ideas: evanescence, hakanasa, is the concept of constant change, while form, kata, is the practice of routine, giving regularity to our unstable world (Lecture 1). I understand how this manifests itself in nature; “In spring, the dawn is most beautiful…In winter, I like early mornings” (Shōnagon 11:63, as cited in Inouye 7). Emphasizing elements of each season demonstrates the consistency of the way things change. I’m impressed by how there can be such a “cultural consensus” (Inouye 15) on a single image’s interpretation. Where I was/am a bit confused is how this concept of “the form of evanescence” (Inouye 14) transfers over to the human world and day-to-day life. I can see some connection with the “non-symbolic” quality of animism (Lecture 1). A lack of metaphor makes the spiritual world more tangible, suggesting that we are a part of it, rather than outsiders looking in on the divine, as in Christianity, for example. There is an understanding of “participation” in the natural world, as well as the natural world’s role in our lives (Kitagawa, 48). There is no “distance” between humans and the natural world in ancient poetry (Inouye, 25), and I guess this idea has evolved as part of the modern mindset. So the evanescence and form, and the specific “form of evanescence” (Inouye 14) easily observable in our environment holds a highly personal relevance because we are not really observing it, we are a part of it. This makes tentative logical sense to me, for now.

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Shawn Power


Nothing the week

The idea of evanescence and form, or structure, in Japanese culture has been somewhat confusing for me. I guess the only way that I understand the concept is through the line, “In Japan, formality affirms the potential chaos of evanescence..” (Inouye 1). To me this seems to say that the relationship between evanescence and form is a balancing act of sorts. The way I understand it is that the Japanese embrace the “fleeting …unpredictable” nature of life and counteract the lack of control they have over things with rigorous form and tradition. I also had some difficulty understanding the concept of animism. I only came to fully understand the “non symbolic readings of symbols” (lecture 1/24) when I spoke to professor Inouye after class. The way I came to understand it is that a cross is a symbol the represents Christianity whereas a sacred tree does not represent anything other than itself. The tree is sacred; it is not representing something greater than itself. Being a Catholic this concept is very foreign to me because nearly everything in Catholicism is representing God, Jesus, or something of greater importance.

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by Benjamin deButts

I was reading on a bench near the prez lawn when there was a strong breeze.


Winter silence-

A gust disturbs

Moments later, gone



This past week in Japanese culture the focus was mostly on what we are going to learn—obviously evanescence and form being the focus. Both play a fundamental role in the culture of Japan and I think so far have fit nicely into what I knew of Japan beforehand. In visiting Japan, the most striking difference to me was definitely the formality of everything, the great example being the Japanese Railway man politely asking the drunken businessman: “Honorable Passenger. Are you getting on? Or are you getting off? (Inouye, 3). We learn that this formality can be traced far back into the roots of Japan when Confucianism made it’s way to the island, stressing the importance of “order and hierarchy” (Inouye, 18). Buddhism, too, reached the island where the Chinese word, mujo, came to signify the impermanence of things (Inouye, 22). In a place that was already fascinated with the transience of life (as evidenced by the Man’yoshu’s use of utsusemi, or cicada shell), the Japanese were quick to adapt their previous experiences to this new culture (Inouye, 23). Thus ancient Japan coalesced all these influences into a pretty interesting outlook of a chaotic world. I particularly like the “localness” and “non-symbolic understanding of symbols” Kitagawa describes. I think what really attracts me to it is the appreciation and closeness to nature. Here in America, there are naturalists and fanciful nature writers sure, but nature isn’t quite as embedded in our language, history, (and soul?) as Japan. The simplicity of marking a part of nature with a rope to designate its sacredness is something I find really beautiful.


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My Introduction to Evanescence and Form: A Paradox Extraordinaire…

By Laura Sabia

Unable to sleep, I waited alone through the first hours of the morning in the guest bedroom of my friend’s house in New Jersey.


I lie awake-

New day’s first light

Breaks through my window

We begin the semester with a major contradiction, one that will remain with us throughout our study of Japanese culture. Professor Inouye tells us that the main object of our studies will be to understand this paradox: the interaction of form and flux (Inouye 2) or “evanescence and form” (Lecture 1/16). Evanescence (hakanasa and mujo) is the concept that “all things [change] all the time.” (Inouye 17) Form (kata) refers to a certain shape or pattern of all things in life (Lecture 1/16). The intersection of these two elements leaves us with a bit of an oxymoron- organized chaos? I can’t say this is idea is easily grasped, but nonetheless, I like it. The Japanese have basic conclusions about reality: that the world is both restrictive- filled with rules and obligations- and fleeting. (Inouye 22) I can’t help but feel a little frustrated about all this. On one hand, I’m anxious to run through life trying to take everything in, but on the other hand I’m held back by the molasses that is ‘form’. Maddening to be sure. So how to make manifest an intimate relationship with the world while remaining within the boundaries of form? Challenging. The Japanese attempt by writing waka: brief, lyrical poems about direct experience in the world. (Lecture 1/23) I’m thrilled with this idea, although equally as frustrated by the limitations of the art. My favorite line of the few poems we’ve looked at so far is Ōtomo Yakamochi’s “I know well/That in this cicada-husk world/there is no permanence…” (Inouye 13) This image of the cicada shell is central to the Japanese worldview and I believe it echoes of everything we’ve discussed this past week: form (in this case a physical shape) and change (an insect’s metamorphosis).  Both exist concurrently in this tiny vacant husk. How strange and wonderful!


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I had just left my house on Friday night when I turned onto Packard Ave and couldn’t tell if it was snowing or not until I saw the glow of a street lamp.


Snowflakes fall

Illuminated by the lamp

At night in winter


This week we focused on the guiding ideas for the rest of the course, evanescence and form.  The importance and ubiquity of cherry blossoms and cicada shells were emphasized to introduce the concept of evanescence, and these two natural occurrences seem to encapsulate the notion of constant change.  This is central to Japanese culture, especially from the perspective that we will take (which I understand is only one approach, and wonder how much that will shape the way I learn).   It was interesting to read how evanescence is sort of related to eternity in a sense, with historians recording and reporting the historical record believing in the “the centrality and eternality of the present” (Kitagawa 58). I think form is natural counterbalance to this notion that seems to have developed in order to give some form of meaning to life, unpredictable and impermanent as it may be.   We also talked a lot about animism and the non-symbolic nature of the sacred, which I think is a little bit tricky to grasp from a Western perspective.  I am interested to see where the weekly poetry project goes, since I get the principles behind waka/tanka but don’t quite fully understand the appeal of that style of lyricism yet. It also seems like a trick of some sort, with the act of doing the assignment seeming more important than the content itself. I’m guessing that we will figure this out the further we go into things.  I like the idea of the Japanese finding beauty in sorrow, and on a whole there seems to be a lean towards some (objectively) kind of depressing guiding concepts in this course.  This start makes me really interested to see how these concepts will connect to more current cultural phenomena, like the somewhat bizarre facets of pop culture that Japan is known for today since they seem unconnected so far.


-Madeline Moe

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Week 1 – The Cicada (Nicholas Economos)

I wasn’t able to write a poem about an experience this week.




            I had a surprisingly difficult time finding subject material for my brief poem this week. This is surprising because I don’t find the concept of Japanese poems all that difficult to understand. I recognize the important of brevity in Japanese poetry, as “’wordiness is… taboo to animistic beauty’” (Konoshi in Inouye 26).  In many of the poems we have read and seen in lecture the volumes few words can speak is powerful and apparent. The context and uses of “utsusemi” is a key example of this idea (Inouye 17). Yet in practice I’m having a difficult time evoking the emotion needed to produce poetry characteristic of Japanese tanka poets. Though I was admittedly busy this last week I put in an effort to become sensitive to my surrounding, with nothing to show for it unfortunately. I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated yet though. This week I’m determined to keep my eyes open to my surroundings. Japanese perception of nature is “’concrete and visual,’” and I will continue to attempt to draw inspiration from my environment (Susumu in Inouye 25).

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