A torrent of words


Ame may mean rain, but it’s never been just rain in Japan; it’s been dissected and categorized under a multitude of names that, sadly, few Japanese are in touch with anymore. Still, the fact that many people casually refer to Japan as ame no kuni (country of rain), where water perpetually seeps from the sky — sometimes shito-shito (drop by drop), other times jan-jan (cats and dogs) — has made us sensitive to and appreciative of the language connected with rain.

Winter ends when the rains start to fall, and old people say “hitoame goto ni atatakaku naru (it gets warmer with every rainfall).” Summer bows out with the beginning of the akisame (autumn rains), whose quality and quantity is an indicator of what the winter will be like. And in June we have tsuyu (plum rain) — the rainy season, when people hang dehumidifiers in their closets and spray bathrooms with mildew zappers. (The concept of the “June bride” is an imported mistake, unless you like to see guests in gowns and tuxedos wiping rainwater off their faces.) The more rain there is in a tsuyu, it’s said that the hotter the summer will be — and the tastier the watermelons. This year weather forecasters are predicting a karatsuyu (absence of rain in the rainy season), and though this may be good news for the World Cup fans and players, it’s a killer for rice, tea and other crops.

The Japanese will complain endlessly about rain, and a few even leave the country for better weather elsewhere. But deprive us of it for too long and we start to feel ame-koishii (lonely for rain). Heck, even Ryuichi Sakamoto named his daughter Miu (beautiful rain).

Dryness is simply not in our DNA; we value words like shittori (retaining moisture) to describe a woman’s attractively tranquil personality, or mizumizushii (full of wetness) to praise her dewy skin or fresh character. And when a woman grows old, people are apt to say things like mizu ga nuketa (dried out) behind her back. Handsome men are said to mizu mo shitataru (drip water from every part of the body), and when less visually pleasing they are dubbed kareta otoko (dry and brittle man). The word seoimizu refers to a metaphorical bag of water carried on the back — the water gradually leaks out and when the bag is dry, it’s time to check out. Water is the very essence of the Japanese existence.

Since the Nara Period (710-794), poets and scribes have been trying to describe the drops that fall from the sky. To them, rain not only comes in different colors — kurenai no ame (rouge-colored rain), ryoku-u (green rain), aoshigure (blue, intermittent rain), kuroi ame(black rain, or nuclear fallout) — but it can taste different, like kan-u (sweet rain), and have different textures, such as nekonkeame (cat’s-fur rain). The humorists among the poets say things like niji no shonben (rainbow piss) for fair-weather, rain and nabe wari (pot cracker) to describe the stormy autumn rains that literally pound down from the sky and shatter pots and pans upon impact.

Then there are the people who are walking rain clouds, known as ameonna (rain woman) and ameotoko (rain man). These folks rarely get garden party and hiking invitations for fear their presence will literally throw cold water on the proceedings. The unofficial verdict is that 40 percent of the Japanese populace are fatal rain magnets and only 10 percent bring blue skies wherever they go. Sandwiched between these two groups, the rest of us have learned to stash neatly rolled, fold-up umbrellas in our bags no matter what. Either that or we make it a habit to procure a 500 yen plastic umbrella at a convenience store whenever the heavens decide to spill some unexpected water. The downside to this, of course, is that one accumulates about 1,000 umbrellas in a lifetime, the survivors of which are propped up against the side of the apartment door. No Japanese has yet come out with a phrase to describe this phenomenon. A blatant oversight.