Cold Cicadas Cry
Before I started attending an international school in Singapore, I didn’t know summer holidays in Western schools were much longer than their Japanese counterparts. I clearly remember the panicked expression on my mother’s face when she discovered that I would have two months of vacation from my new school. She said she didn’t know what to do with me being idle at home for such a long period of time.
In Japanese primary schools, the summer holidays are a little over a month long, which starts around the third week of July and runs until the end of August. On the last day of school, we are assigned tons of homework and also have to thoroughly clean and empty out our classrooms. This meant that we carried home all our textbooks, indoor shoes, school lunch bags, calligraphy kits, and melodica keyboards. If you see young Japanese children walking with a lot of stuff, you will know that it is their last day of school before vacation.
During the summer holidays, there was no shortage of finding playmates in our apartment complex because most families spent the summer at home. This was because many of our fathers worked long hours and took few vacations. It seemed that our parents’ generation collectively nurtured a culture that respected men who put their work before family.
In my family, my mother, who used to work at a large department store in Yokohama, also enjoyed working. As soon as my younger sister started attending nursery school, she took up a part time job at the local bookshop. I was secretly proud of my mother because she enjoyed going to work, regardless of what other people said or thought about her. Unlike men, Japanese working mothers were often viewed as neglecting their children.
A typical summer morning started with the loudspeakers blasting the NHK radio exercise at our community park. It promptly started at 6:30 am with a piano intro and a man’s voice cheerfully narrating, “lift your arms up from the front and begin by stretching your back.” Ask anyone who attended Japanese primary schools about ‘radio exercise, No. 1’ and they will be able to show you every move because they would have done it countless times.
After the radio exercise, there were many choices for the summer day’s activity. I could join a group of friends serving up mud cakes in the sandbox, pull out my bicycle and go to the rice paddy fields to check on the bugs and frogs, simply roam the shopping area in the center of our danchi and drop in on my mother at the bookstore, or hang out with friends who were buying rubbishy plastic toys dispensed from vending machines using their monthly allowance. In the afternoons, the humid sky often developed layers of clouds rising like huge mountains that often turned into thunderstorms.
What I most enjoyed in the summer was when we could gather enough friends to play games of dodgeball in a parking lot. I became so absorbed in the games that I was often late for the 5.30pm curfew to get home. When I was late, my mother locked me out of the apartment as punishment while I cried and banged on the door, begging her to let me in.
This may sound overly harsh and unacceptable today, but it was a common practice when I was growing up. I frequently heard other children banging on doors and crying to be let in on summer evenings. Neighbors teased and said, “Ai, were you locked out again yesterday?” when they saw me. No one thought much of it, and in fact, my friends were envious because my mother never grounded me even though I was a repeat offender.
I still remember a late summer day near the end of August, when I was playing dodgeball with my friends. The sun had begun to lower when one of them shouted “look at how big and red it is today!” We all stopped and watched the sun. The dry, bell-like sound of higurashi (sunset) cicadas was filling the air and we could see our school in the distance. I felt slightly sorry for the school that seemed lonely without us. Then someone suddenly said “bye!” and started running and we all scattered and began racing home to meet our curfews.