Postcard from Japan: The Song of the Cicada — An Ainu Story

I stumbled upon this wonderful picture book (with some timely resonances) at my local picture book library.  The Song of the Cicada by Ainu artist, poet, and storyteller Shizue Ukaji (Fukuinkan Shoten, 2008) tells the story of an old woman who prophesizes  about a tsunami in which the waters of the sea will overflow and meet waters overflowing from the mountaintops to create one gigantic wave that will destroy everything.  Night and day, the old woman sings this song of doom and peril.  One village listens and moves their residences high up; the other village does not and gets swept away.   Among the swept away is the old woman herself, but she is not without some grit and resources.  Calling out to the sea god, she tells him that the fields of the sea will stink of the smell of their deaths unless he does something.  Enraged by this taunt, he sends the woman to a ‘sixth’ hell.  Luckily for her, a protector goddess who is also a weaver has thrust the end of her spindle right down to this hell.  The old woman climbs out onto the earth, emerging as a cicada, thus it is that the book is called Song of the Cicada.

What I found particularly compelling about this picture book aside from its tsunami references, was the beautiful textile work of  Ukaji who illustrated the entire story using old kimono fabrics (known as kofu in Japanese) and colorful embroidery thread to create the various scenes.  Traditional Ainu patterns and motifs are evident in some of the embroidery work. Herself an Ainu born in 1933, Ukaji moved to the capital and worked her way through school.  She subsequently was married and had two children.  It was only until she was in her sixties that she had the wherewithal to enjoy creating stories and artwork about her Ainu heritage.   Song of the Cicada is the second published work of Ukaji.  I hope that this wonderful Ainu artist’s books can be someday translated into English!  For more on Ukaji and Ainu textile artwork, check out this video of a recent exhibit held in Osaka.

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