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On drinking, May and battling the blues

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

According to T.S. Eliot, April is the cruelest month. But in Japan May ushers in some pretty heavy blues, too. The dual combination of haru no megumi (春の恵み, spring blessings) and haru no utsu (春の鬱, spring depression) makes for a challenging 31 days.

That February is also depressing is a no-brainer. From start to finish, it’s an awful time, but at least you get to stay in bed and nurse your infuru (インフル, influenza), which sounds like a bum deal but believe me, a chunk of guilt-free kyūkeijikan (休憩時間, rest time) just does not happen anywhere else on the Japanese calendar.

However, go-gatsu (五月, May), also known as satsuki, is a beauty. Even in the tokai no sabaku (都会の砂漠, urban desert) that is Tokyo, we get to savor the shinryoku (新緑, new leaves) against a gorgeous blue satsukibare no sora (五月晴れの空, clear May sky), the likes of which come around only several days a year with flowers blooming in even the dingiest of city alleyways.

As for spring food, for the sakanazuki (魚好き, pescaterians), there’s the hatsugatsuo (初鰹, new bonito) that the Tokyoite has valued for centuries. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), nyōbō wo shichini iretemo hatsugatsuo (女房を質に入れても初鰹, a man will pawn his wife if it means he can eat the new bonito) was a popular phrase — an interesting indicator of the Japanese male mindset.

On the veggie front, there’s the soramame (空豆, broad beans), and the medicinal haruno gosanke (春の御三家, spring triumvirate) of myōga, (茗荷, ginger), wakegi (分葱, scallion) and shiso (紫蘇, perilla) all treasured since the days of Japan’s oldest anthology of poems “The Manyōshyū” (万葉集) for their restorative effects.

There’s so much to be thankful for in the month of May that it’s odd that all the good stuff is often overshadowed by the arrival of what’s known as Gogatsubyō (May sickness 五月病). There’s a tendency in Japan to cram everything into the month of April, which marks the start of the new year for organizations, institutions and corporations. It’s a month full of hanami (花見, cherry-blossom viewing) festivities and kansōgeikai (歓送迎会, drinking parties to welcome newcomers and say goodbye to people leaving). In other words, many tankards of alcohol are consumed in a short space of time, by people who are stressed out by the avalanche of last-minute work that rolls in during March. If anything, April should be a month of relaxation but sōiu wake niwa ikanai (そういうわけにはいかない, that’s just not feasible) in Japanese society.

Come May, tsuke ga mawatte kuru (ツケがまわってくる, the tab comes around) in the form of utsu (鬱, depression), shōkakikei no koshō (消化器系の故障, digestion problems), mansei hirō (慢性疲労, chronic fatigue) and more. Not surprisingly, many people consider quitting schools and jobs in May.

So goes the gogatsubyō. The shōjyō (症状, symptoms) can vary, from the mild stuff like ira-ira (イライラ, irritation) and kimochi no ochikomi (気持ちの落ち込み, feeling down) to the more severe, refusal to tsūkin (通勤, commute to work) or tōkō (登校, going to school) to hikikomori (引きこもり, becoming a recluse).

Even worse is when May sickness leads to hanzai (犯罪, crime), specifically, bōryoku (暴力, acts of violence), chikan kōi (痴漢行為 groping in trains and buses) and stōkā kōi (ストーカー行為, acts of stalking). According to a keishichō (警視庁, metropolitan police) report, the number of reported sex crimes skyrocket in springtime. My grandmother used to caution us when we were growing up: “Haru wa henna hito ga fuerukara kiwotsukeruyōni” (「春は変な人が増えるから気をつけるように」”Be careful, because a lot of strange people are out and about in spring”).

What it comes down to, is that the average Japanese can’t handle the combo of excessive alcohol and high-calorie otsumami (おつまみ, appetizers), both of which are woven into the fabric of socializing. A large proportion of adult men are afflicted with cancer, the leading variety being igan (胃がん, stomach cancer), said to be a byproduct of the ōbei no shokuseiktasu (欧米の食生活, Western diet). Kanzōgan (肝臓がん, liver cancer) is ranked fourth, but in some hard-drinking regions like Fukuoka in southern Japan, it’s No. 1.

On the other hand, life in Japan would be slightly hellish if nomikai (飲み会, drinking parties) were off-limits to us. This is why some izakaya (居酒屋, pubs) have a three-drink policy — no one is allowed to stay after the third drink, and told to go home to rest. These joints are usually jimoto micchakugata (地元密着型, firmly entrenched in the local community) and have their jyōren (常連, regular clientele), who frequent them for years or even decades. The jyōren are treated like family, and get to have their problems listened to. Picking a neighborhood izakaya (whether they have the three-drink policy or not) and staying there forever is one way to beat the spring blues.

  • Eagle Eye

    Great article again, thanks very much. When it comes to such cultural observations and articles, I am glued to the screen or magazine. Very interesting explanations and fabulous observations in this issue. Thumbs up!