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Goodbye summertime blues, hello summer proper

by Kaori Shoji

The late, great rock musician Kiyoshiro Imawano covered Eddie Cochran’s classic “Summertime Blues” back in the 1980s, and the lyrics were prophetically brilliant.

Basically, his song pointed out the awfulness of summertime in Japan — and how the Japanese would go for a dip in the ocean to escape the heat, only to be confronted by a genshiryoku hatsudensho (原子力発電所, nuclear power plant) towering over the pine trees along the opposite shore. Imawano’s lyrics counted 37 plants (that total has now jumped to 54) and the refrain went “sappari wakannee, nanno tame” (「さっぱりわかんねえ、ナンのため」 “I just don’t understand what the hell these plants are for”) and then concluded with “semai Nihonno summertime blues” (「狭い日本のサマータイム ブルース 」 “summertime blues in this small, crowded Japan”).

We now know why genpatsu ( an abbreviation of genshiryoku hatsudensho) was cause for so much summertime depression — suffice to say, it had been the main generator of Japan’s summertime work ethic. Those plants fueled the nation’s factories, kept air conditioners going in office buildings, blasted cold air into subway tunnels, chilled convenience stores to the extent that the staff had to wear long sleeves, and generally kept the majority of working people cooled and chained to their jobs during the hottest, clammiest months of the year.

What all this meant was that we were deprived of all opportunities to NOT work. Day after day, people trudged to their desks or went out to sotomawari (外回り, going outside the office to make sales pitches), mopped the sweat from the back of their necks and scowled in the sun until they could duck indoors again.

Come evening, many would return to airless apartments where they reached for the air-con switch faster than they turned on the lights. A friend of mine actually tried to rig up his front door so that the air con went on the minute his key turned in the lock.

No one in their right minds opened the windows to let in the breeze and breathe a little. Most Japanese over the age of 15 hated summer, and who could blame them? Heat and sweat were the enemy, and the more we pretended that it was November in the office and inside the tsūkin densha (commuter trains), the better we could withstand the fact that it was 36 degrees Celsius on the street. As Imawano sang, “akuseku kaseide zeikin torare” (「あくせく稼いで税金とられ」 “we work like crazy only to be taxed like hell”). And “tamano yasumini inakani ikeba” (「たまの休みに田舎に行けば」”once in a blue moon we’d get time off and go to the country”) — only to see the good old nuke plants marring the view.

In Tokyo, the genpatsu was far less visible though we could feel the effects — unnamed but there — in the way no one seemed to know how to enjoy the summer months anymore, or how to ride out the heat without relying on electrical power. The massive, collective deployment of air conditioners and mippei kenchiku (密閉建築, insulated building methods) have led to the infamous hīto airando genshō (ヒートアイランド現象, heat-island phenomenon) in which all the hot air coming out of the millions of air-con vents created a sponge-like air mass consisting mainly of heat and grime, that enveloped the city like a mantle of punishment. Venturing outdoors became a hazardous undertaking, and certainly shouldn’t have been tackled in a business suit.

But as Japanese corporate logic rated nintai (忍耐, endurance) above all other virtues, salarymen continued to spend their summer days wrapped in their sebiro (背広, suits), topped off with a limp tie. Kakikyūka (夏期休暇, summer holidays) — if you could call them that — consisted mainly of a few days in mid-August, during Obon (お盆, the week when one’s ancestors cross over to the land of the living to see how their descendants are doing). This entailed a mass exodus out of the city to get to one’s parents’ house, and the whole process repeated in reverse three measly days later. As many Tokyoites liked to say, it was better to work straight through the summer in the cool of the office. Ultimately, it was less stressful that way.

This year however, could just be the year we take back our summertime and spend it the way the Japanese have traditionally liked to spend it: stupefied by the heat. The genpatsu disaster and the subsequent shutting down of a number of nuclear power plants have led to less air-conditioning, fewer working hours, more days off. A significant number of companies are utilizing the 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. workday schedule, and for the first time in something like six decades, men are going home before dark to eat dinner with their families. And on weekends, perhaps more people are opening windows, pulling down shades and engaging in that magical time known as hirune (昼寝, nap). True, you wake up dripping with sweat an hour later, but the languid dreaminess remains. It’s also totally genpatsu-free.