Much as I hate to admit it, summertime in Tokyo is less than joyous. The season just doesn’t have that celebratory, liberating mood, it doesn’t slow down, grow languid or lean back with an iced tea. Summertime in Tokyo means sweating businessmen carrying suit jackets with their forefingers to cut fabric contact down to a minimum, and office girls sitting with woolen blankets over their laps to avoid the industrial chill of the air conditioner.
There are always a few cases of serious food poisoning. Tap water acquires the smell and taste of an infirmary trash bin. To top it all off, it’s sacrilege to take more than five working days off. It’s no wonder the Japanese have traditionally described summer with these words: natsuyase (summer slimming), natsubate (summer fatigue) and natsugare (summer wilting).
The sad thing is: It’s not all that different for children. When you’re a child in Tokyo, natsuyasumi (summer vacation) kicks off no sooner than July 20 and shrieks to a halt Aug. 31 — half the length of vacations in places like the U.S. and France. During this time, the children are saddled with natsuyasumi no shukudai (summer vacation homework) which I am convinced was dreamed up by the Marquis de Sade then somehow exported to Japan because his fellow countrymen wouldn’t have it.
This is why, on July 20, you see a lot of kids swaying under the weight of a ton of books and a potted plant. The books are a brand-new set of doriru (workbooks) they must finish before the fall term and the plants are for a time-honored science project called kansatsunikki (observation diary) — record every day in the life of the plant, measure how much it grows and turn the whole thing into a table graph. School may be out, but schoolwork doesn’t stop.
Another traditional natsuyasumi project is the enikki (picture diary), which is a personal account of one’s daily life supplemented by a picture of the day’s prime event. Take it from me, there’s nothing worse than going to school on Sept. 1 and having the teacher riffle through what is, after all, a collection of one’s personal and private thoughts, then holding it up for the world to see. The truly disgusting part was having to witness some sniveling rich kid’s diary, full of accounts like: “We went swimming at the Keio Plaza Hotel, then had an ice-cream parfait in the lounge.” The picture would show a huge blue swimming pool and grownups in bikinis.
On the other hand, the shukudai has its bit of redeeming fun. Most schools request a jiyuu kadai (free-to-choose project) in which a kid can pretty well do anything and call it work. In my day, a boy would bring in a rock collection, which he picked off the street only the day before. His buddy would bring in a couple of dead bugs glued on construction paper with little captions: “mosquito,” “cockroach,” “fly.” And every year there was that one inevitable someone who brought in a plastic bag crammed with furry slices of bread and called it “A Minute Observation of the Growth and Maturity of Green Mold.”
Looking back, it could be that this intervention into summer vacations stemmed from a primal, nagging fear that some little kid out there could actually be having fun. Schools and parents joined hands to avoid such a dire predicament. So in the mornings, kids were obliged to get up at 6, run to the schoolyard and join the rajio taiso (radio exercises), which is a half-hour session of light calisthenics to some scratchy piano tunes coming out of a radio. They carried a rajio taiso kaado (radio exercises card) that was essentially a calendar. For each exercise session, the adult in charge gave out one little stamp or star to put on the card: proof that the child had been a diligent and early riser. (Schools had quotas on how many stamps were obligatory and how many deserved awards.)
After the exercises, a lot of kids went to their school swimming pools with a similar puuru kaado (pool card) — presided over by the gym teacher and his shrill whistle.
Consequently, summer vacations were in name only — in truth, one was always exercising or swimming laps or growing mold or solving long division, never very far from the prison walls of school. Then, as now, one’s parents were hot and irritable until they could take the annual bonyasumi (August holidays) from Aug. 14 to 16. For these three days, fathers hustled the family into the car or the shinkansen (bullet train), and traveled for several nightmarish hours among millions of other families to finally leave the city. The destination was usually inaka (one’s rural hometown) where your grandparents lived.
Then, much too soon, your parents were back at work. You’d be sweating over the bulk of the shukudai, neglected for several weeks and whose pages were now ripe to torture you full blast until Aug. 31.
So get out your bathing suit and your Prozac — Natsuyasumi is almost here.