Though it hasn’t been scientifically proven, there appears to be a definite link between summer heat and summer funerals. In my neighborhood, the onset of o-neppa (heat wave), followed by those negurushii yoru (restless nights) sets off a string of o-soshiki (funerals) at the local temple. Almost always, these are for the elderly, the generation of seventy-fives and over whose children and relatives gather at the kokubetsushiki to tell each other that at least the demise was a o-daioujyou (‘the great departure’ to the beyond following a life has been lived to the very end).
Just the other day, Saito-san’s mother died in her sleep at the grand old age of 91. Saito-san described her passing as o-medetai (felicitous).
Japanese summers are tinged with a shadow of darkness and from a very early age we learn that natsuyasumi (summer vacation time) is not simply about fun and games in the sun.
In addition to the frequent o-soshiki there’s o-shusenkinenbi (the anniversary that marks Japan’s surrender in WWII) on August 15, preceded by the genbaku kinenbi (the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) on August 6 and 9, respectively. Shusenkinenbi is also a day when many schools have the tokobi (going to school day), when schools demand that the students drop whatever they may be doing elsewhere, grab their schoolbags and come to school.
There are no classes, just a series of lectures from kochosensei (the principal) about the importance of keeping temptation at bay, to train the body and mind, and to refrain from having too much of a good time.
During junior high school, we were told to wear our sukuru mizugi (school-approved bathings suits) at the beach and public pools, and that it was best to keep the number of appearances at such places down to three times during an entire summer.
Imagine the festering resentment over how kids in the US and Europe got close to three solid months of summertime fun, while we in this Far Eastern archipelago got a measly five weeks full of woe, obligations and warnings against too much pleasure, not to mention the piles of natsuyasumi no shukudai (summer homework). It was, to put it briefly: Zurui (Not fair)!
As we grow older however, we come to understand the logic behind such arrangements. After all, once a Japanese child becomes an shakaijin (a member of adult society) it’s nearly impossible to wrangle more than a few days off for summer vacation and those days are more often or not designated for family duties or funerals.
The rest of the summer is devoted to retaining one’s sanity in the all-encompassing heat while dealing with a workload that somehow seems to increase, even as the nation is slowing down. In any case, it’s best to resign oneself to the fact that summers in Japan are not conducive to fun.
That said, over the years I’ve come to embrace the particular peculiarities of Nihon no Natsu (Japanese Summer). Every August, something in the brain triggers memories of all those afternoons spent running on the school tracks under a blazing sun (extra-curricular sports practices were held throughout summer), sweat dripping from our pores and into our eyes making us weep. Or the feeling of the pressure on the lungs from swimming so many laps at the school pool (summertime school pool attendance was, and still is, mandatory).
There was also that wonderful feeling of hard-won fatigue at the end of all that physical exertion, coupled with the gorgeous taste of kakigori (shaved ice desserts) eaten on the way home; the coolness of a temple during a summer funeral and the scent of powerful incense, and finally, the long, frantic nights spent on mountains of summer homework, just before they were due on Sept. 1 when we all went back to school (not that it felt like we’d ever really left the place).
“Natsu wa kenkona kokoro to kyojinna karada wo tsukuru tame ni aru” (Summers are for creating healthy minds and bodies full of strength) said the principal, one fine day in August many years ago. I can almost believe it.
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