Japan's 72 Microseasons - #19
"Frog Song Starts"
May 6 - 10
かわず はじめて なく
Kawazu hajimete naku
Frog song starts
There are plenty of sights that we associate with the changing of the seasons, but equally present—should we choose to pay attention—are the sounds. Next time you go out into a bit of wild nature, take a moment to close your eyes and listen. The birds, the wind, the leaves. Which ones are particular to this time of year? Which ones are you hearing for the first time in a while? Which aren’t you hearing? These small, subtle differences are what make a microseason.
Of course, some sounds are pretty hard to miss, like a field full of singing frogs. Have a listen:
The rice paddies in Japan provide a home not only for the key crop, but for a rich variety of local wildlife that flourishes among even the most urban of settings. And here, at the sekki that marks the arriving of summer—Rikka—the dominant presence (at least sonically) are the frogs.
The shallow, muddy ponds where rice seedlings are planted are a perfect spot for breeding frogs and their tadpoles to live and grow alongside the shoots. Anyone with rice fields in their town will be intimately familiar (for better or worse) with the rich chorus of frogsong that fills these nights throughout the summer. And I do mean filled—they can be heard for quite a distance away.
Whether appreciated as a comforting backdrop to a balmy evening or bemoaned as a neverending sleep-disrupting drone amidst rising humidity, there’s no doubting that all the ribbits and croaks are a certified sound of summer. We talk often in this newsletter about natural symbols that are strongly associated with the seasons, so it would be good to know that these are called fūbutsu-shi (風物詩). Classically, this referred to seasonally inspired poetry, but now has a more general usage of “thing that reminds you of a particular season.”
Although our fūbutsu-shi frogs are named in this kō as kawazu1 they are more commonly called kaeru. Students of Japanese will notice a homophone here with the word 帰る, which means “to return (home).” There’s a folk linguistic theory that the reason frogs came to be called kaeru is due to their habit of reliably returning to the pond in which they were raised when it comes time to start a new family.
This lends itself to one of Japan’s very favorite pastimes: puns and wordplay. Frogs are a common motif in signposts, keychains, car stickers, and statues at temples to wish for children’s and others’ careful commutes. These are called bujikaeru (ぶじかえる), a shortening of buji ni kaeru (無事に帰る) “to return safely.”2
Much like in the West, frogs are present through Japanese art, folklore, and mythology thanks to their constant, non-threatening proximity to humans. Usually they feature as messengers of good fortune, or in stories about travellers trying to get home.3
In a non-metaphorical sense, seasonal haiku and other forms of poetry reflecting on the summer will often reference the songs of these little green guys. They appear in the Man’yoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of poems dating back over 1200 years, so it’s fair to assume they’ve been appreciated on the archipelago for quite a while!
And still appreciated today! It’s been a while since we’ve shared some of the great (modern) illustration work others are doing for the 72 kō, so before we get into the seasonal items for #19 here let’s see some nice frog drawings.
● Seasonal vegetable
ninjin, 人参, carrot
● Seasonal seafood
kinmedai, 金目鯛, splendid alfonsino
● Seasonal flower
fuji, 藤, wisteria
Wherever you are, there may not be rice paddies full of singing frogs (and you may or may not be sad about that), but chances are there’s something particular to this time of year in your specific corner of the world. And that’s the beauty of the smaller scale of a microseason—they can be something that only happens right where you are, right now in this moment of time. So even if your local area is wholly frog-less, each day brings some kind of little change just waiting to be noticed.4
But if you do see a frog, be sure to thank it for helping you get home safe.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
Literally “without incident”
It should be noted that toads (gama) have their own different set of connotations! They don’t get a microseason, though, so out of my jurisdiction
And if you do notice something, and feel like writing it down, I would love to hear what the fūbutsu-shi are for your own culture and area! If not one right now, one you’re waiting to hear, see, or smell to let you know a season is coming