Seasonal rules permeate daily life in Japan

by Kris Kosaka

I grew up in Florida, and our year divides itself into seasons of bearable and unbearable. Even the most creative mind could hardly find illumination in topics around the weather, as there are only so many ways to say “the sun is shining with ferocious force today” or “the sweat is running into my eyeballs with alarming frequency.”

In Japan, seasons are strictly observed, and every relationship begins with the weather. It’s a Japanese art form in itself.

In summer, the most casual greeting is followed by an observation on the heat, usually a simple statement of sweaty fact. Autumn and spring conversations end with the reminder to be careful. “The weather is so changeable lately — don’t catch cold.”

Autumn’s grip holds firm now, with cooler nights and mornings the norm, familiar posters proclaiming koyo season decorate our local station — leaf viewing time in Japan.

We spent a year in Canada recently, and I was amazed at the fall colors. Vibrant, vivid shocks of red and yellow splashed across the trees, a spectacular beauty only disappointing in its brevity. In less than two weeks, the trees stood bare. Accustomed as I am to Japanese aki, Canada’s autumn seemed shockingly short.

Luckily, Japan’s fall wardrobe lasts much longer, an expensive coat Nature hates to abandon before ample wear. Northern Japan shows off its colors now, but the gingko tree at my local playground in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, will not show its gorgeous yellow leaves until late December.

This leisurely celebration of autumn reminds me of the strict guidelines of each season in the kitchens of Japan. A Japanese housewife would never serve stew in the sultriness of the summer, nor would she prepare thin noodles and deep fried vegetables and fish in January.

Seasonal rules leak outside the cooking pot to most areas of Japanese life. There is a time and a pattern, a way for all things, as inviolate as the summer typhoon or the winter days of sunshine.

This lesson on Japanese culture seeped into my awareness, slowly, as I absentmindedly lived through several cycles in Japan. The depth of this reverence for the natural world eluded me, but a recent exchange with a friend made me aware of the hidden recesses.

I tried to end a conversation in English with the admonition to be careful of flu in these early days of autumn and the recent changeable weather patterns. I received a cold stare. “It is virus in the air, not the weather, that causes the flu,” my British friend corrected, and I blushed, feeling like a superstitious bumpkin. Some things from the Japanese are not easily translated.

Yet perhaps Japan’s distinct seasons, and the disparate culture built within each cycle, partially explains Japan’s continued proximity to nature, at least in spirit. Anyone who visits the confines of steel-forested Tokyo, waking alongside concrete-encased creeks or rivers, may chuckle at the thought of a natural Japan, yet those of us who have lived here long know how the Japanese celebrate the natural world in every day life.

Although trends in food and clothes certainly follow a seasonal path, it is more than prescriptive rules. Maybe it’s in the typical Japanese disdain for a clothes dryer, or the common sense wisdom that prevails, condemning central air or heating throughout the night, preferring our bodies to breathe naturally while at rest.

I can see it in the way schools keep a vegetable garden for the children to plant and harvest, and how 2 year olds are taught not to waste food, for the seven gods inside each grain of rice. Perhaps it is revealed in the conventions of writing, from haiku to a business letter, where a reference to nature or the season must be included.

Certainly it is in Shinto traditions, where every part of the natural world houses a god. This quiet but pervasive nod to Nature can be found in nearly every area of Japan, from architecture to Zen.

Of course, an irony exists. The typical Japanese litters with careless disregard; the Shonan coast boasts as much garbage and floating debris as seaweed. Most of my neighbors do not think about recycling or reuse; they separate trash for convenience and efficiency.

Prime Minister Hatoyama seems determined to strengthen Japan’s warm-fuzzy feelings on nature into something more substantial, with his plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent. I hope he succeeds; perhaps the Japanese kinship with nature is a depth of feeling that needs to be tapped.

As in many things in this country that adopted me, I take what I like and ignore the rest. I squint and sigh, when the cigarette butts mingle with the purity of fallen cherry blossoms, but I choose to see the focus on the seasons and the weather as a reassuring nod to the cyclical nature of life. Just don’t ask me where my black umbrella and gloves are in June.