Do You Hear the Insects Singing?

Japanese Cultural Identity & Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

Hiroki Sato

“Hills Like White Elephants” is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway. This story depicts a couple taking at a station in Ebro, Spain, on a hot summer day, and the combination of descriptions of a hot summer day and sadness of parting lead readers to have unique nostalgia for summer. The nostalgia for summer may be a common sense among people in a country with seasons, but the picture of summer that they have in their mind is different from each other. This makes each person have a picture of summer different from other people when they read this story, and that will different from the real view of Ebro, Spain, because people create their pictures being influenced by their memory and cultural background. Indeed, when I read this story at the first time, I had a picture of a station in Japan in a hot summer day. However, I noticed that this short story misses an important thing to describe nostalgia of summer of Japan, and I unconsciously added it in my picture of the summer day written in this story. That is the voice of cicada, especially the voice of a large brown cicada called aburazemi, which symbolizes hot summer days.

In Japanese literature, the depiction of the voice of the insects is an important matter, and it can be found even in the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry called Manyoushuu, complied in 8th century. Enjoying listening the voice of insects, and having various thoughts for it are one of essential part of Japanese culture, so we conjure up the voice cicada when we have a picture of summer even if there is no description of it, and develop nostalgia connected the image of the voice of cicada. The reason why Japanese people have developed the culture to enjoy listening the voice of insects is not known, but the uniqueness of Japanese that Japanese has many onomatopoeia may contribute to it. The use of many kinds of onomatopoeia helps expression of the voice of insects and may make it possible to distinguish the differences of the voices of different species of insects. For example, we express the voice of cicada called ヒグラシ(蜩) higurashi with onomatopoeia “かなかなかなかなかな kana-kana-kana-kana-kana”, which represents evening, sunset or dusk in summer and is often used in the end of a story about a day in the summer. Onomatopoeia “りんりん rii-n, rii-n” usually represents the sound of bell and the voice a cricket called すずむし(鈴虫)suzumushi (“すず(鈴)suzu” means bell, and its voice shows a night of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn), and “ころころころころ koro-koro-koro-koro” is used to express the voice of an other species of crickets called コオロギ(蟋蟀)koorogi, which also represents a night of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. In addition, in Japanese traditional culture, sounds have very important roles. For example, ししおどし(鹿威し)shishiodoshi found in Japanese garden and wind chimes show how Japanese people use and enjoy fine sounds in our life. A poet Bashou Matsuo wrote many poems related to the beauty of sounds. Such cultural uniqueness of thought about sounds may be also related with the importance of depictions of the voice of insects that leads readers to have certain feelings and pictures in Japanese literature.

As I mentioned above, the pictures that each reader conjures up may be different from others’ because each person has different memory and cultural background. However, there must be some portions of their pictures of summer days that people in a shared culture have in common, and they may represent the uniqueness of their culture, or cultural identity. Having a picture of a summer day with the voice of cicada that Japanese people conjure up for the word ‘summer’ is one of example of the representation of such cultural identity. The search for the cultural identity will clear the similarity and difference among cultures, and we may see the origin of our own cultures by making connections among groups like making a phylogenetic tree based on such cultural identity. Also, understanding of an author’s cultural identity is a vital matter for translation. When someone tries to translate Japanese literatures to other language, the understanding of the cultural identity of Japanese people that puts special emphasis on treatments of sounds surround us including the voice of insects, which can represent a certain emotion, is a key for the complete translation.

Through reading “Hills Like White Elephants”, I found the cultural identity of Japanese people and developed my interest in ethnology. The development of cultural identity and literature can be associated with each other, and that contributes the diversity of literature around the world. Discovery of own cultural identity through reading stories written by people form other ethnic groups is one of fun when I read foreign literatures, and that may be one of reason why I enjoy analyzing English poetry.

Hiroki Sato is a Japanese student studying in Canada. He is interested in the different ways of thinking among different cultural groups.

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2 responses to “Do You Hear the Insects Singing?

  1. Pingback: Issue 2 Summer/Fall 2014 | The Waggle Magazine

  2. Pingback: Issue 2 Summer/Fall 2014 | The Waggle Magazine

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