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Japanese in need of a break from summer break

by Kaori Shoji

Here’s the real reason why the Japanese summer vacation is so short (for many, it’s a matter of four or five days): the natsuyasumi (summer break) is essentially full of stress and if it were any longer, people up and down Japan would likely pop veins en masse.

Ah, natsuyasumi. For many of us, it means getting up at two in the morning to beat the traffic, cram reluctant offspring and loads of luggage into the car and drive for long hours on freeways crowded with other family cars while periodically yelling at the kids to shut up back there. On the way, the resto eria (rest areas) and the famiresu (family-style restaurants) are full of people, and every tourist hot spot is incredibly crowded. All this attests to the Japanese love of packing a month’s worth of amusement, stimulus and rest into the space of three days and calling the whole thing reja (leisure). Reja has been an honored tradition for the past five decades now, and those who don’t partake of the experience are seen as henjin (weirdos or cranks).

It wasn’t always like this — in fact, in the prewar period, most people had only one and a half days off per year. This was to observe obon (when the spirit of the dead come back to visit) and to go on the ohaka mairi (the visit to the grave of one’s ancestors) with family members. It was the time to say a few prayers, pull up the weeds around the hakaishi (gravestone), and reminisce about the uncle who died young. That done, everyone would go back to work without complaint.

Instead of separating vacation time from the routine, the Japanese preferred to spend the summer engaged in small but persistent summertime pleasures, like watching hanabi (fireworks), strolling through the stalls of local summer festivals called ennichi, eating suika (watermelon) that had been chilled in a neighboring brook or the well in the back yard. People told each other kaidan (scary stories) that would send chills down each other’s spines, and during the day, ate bowls of kakigori (shaved ice) in the shade. The world moved at a more leisurely pace than at other times in the year, and all over Japan, fathers came home early for some quick gyozui (sluicing down the body with buckets of cold water) and banshaku (predinner drinks) before the evening meal.

But the war and the subsequent mass importing of American/Western values changed the whole landscape of Japanese summers. The feeling was that if you didn’t own a car and drive it to some beautiful countryside locale and spend a lot of money with family or friends, then you were a failure, or binbokusai (smelling of poverty).

This would have been fine, if the societal and corporate system had allowed three weeks off for every Japanese citizen across the board. But the most people got was a week. A week is just too short to spend sitting for long hours in a car or a crowded shinkansen (bullet train), or to have deep discussions with people you haven’t really communicated with for months, or tumble into one’s parents house with small children in tow. As a result, the most oft-repeated, postvacation phrase in the workplace is: “Tsukareru tame ni asobi itta yona mono (It’s like I took a vacation just to get tired).”

The fatigue extends to the elders, who must accommodate their children and grandchildren, in a not-so-large house. The obachan (grandmother) must bear the burden of extra chores and the incredible stress of cooking for in-laws, and it’s no secret that the number of female patients over 55 years old soars in hospitals all over Japan after Aug. 31.

And it’s no coincidence that people tend to die more in summer, forcing funeral guests to don their black serge suits in the hottest days of the year. No wonder the wiser among the Japanese elders say: “Natsu wa ugokanai no ga ichiban (It’s best not to move about in the summer)” and limit their summer activities to antiquated prewar pleasures.

The Japan of old knew the perils of summer stress, and so devised the custom of writing their shochyu mimai (words of comfort in the midst of heat) postcards to send to friends and acquaintances. A shochyu mimai card is easy to write and wonderful to receive, with none of the formality of New Year’s greetings. Usually, they say nothing more than “take care in the heat,” with perhaps a line proposing a meeting when the weather gets cooler. Sadly, as with other great Japanese customs, this, too, is on the decline. And so, in the hope of reviving it here: “Tsutsushinde, shochyu omimai moshiagemasu (With utter modesty, I wish you comfort in the midst of the summer heat).”