A linguistic guide to the dog days of summer


With the exception of Hokkaido, Japan heralds the arrival of summer when the 気象庁 (Kishocho, or Japan Meteorological Agency) declares 梅雨明け (tsuyu ake, end of the rainy season).

This is the time of the year when urban office workers head for a nearby 屋上ビアガーデン (okujō bia gāden, rooftop summer beer garden). On weekends, gals may don a 浴衣 (yukata, summer kimono) and guys a 甚平 (jinbei, a pajamalike men’s summer garment) and 草履 (zōri, Japanese sandals) and head for the nearest 花火大会 (hanabi taikai, fireworks display), a good place to chill out with 生ビール (nama bīru, draft beer), 西瓜 (suika, watermelon) and かき氷 (kaki gōri, shaved ice with a squirt of fruit syrup on top).

Along with ざるそば (zarusoba, cold buckwheat noodles), which can be consumed year-round, I vary my diet with two chilled items: 素麺 (sōmen, fine wheat noodles) and 冷やし中華 (hiyashi chūka, cold ramen topped with Chinese-style condiments). Rather than being dipped in つゆ (tsuyu, sauce), the latter can be consumed straight from the bowl, so it requires somewhat less manual dexterity with chopsticks.

The food recommended for avoiding 夏バテ (natsubate, summer heat fatigue) is 鰻の蒲焼き (unagi no kabayaki, charcoal-grilled eel), a protein-rich dish traditionally consumed on the hottest day of summer, called 土用の丑の日 (doyō no ushi no hi). This doyō has no connection with 土曜日 (doyōbi, Saturday), but refers to the start of the 18-day period before the first day of autumn on the lunar calendar.

Some years have two days designated ushi no hi, but 2010 only has one and it fell on Monday. Don’t worry if you missed it; unagi is ubiquitous and a hiatus of two days shouldn’t make much difference.


* 富士山開山 (Fujisan kaizan, the beginning of the official climbing season on Mount Fuji [usually July 1-Aug. 31])

* 避暑地 (hishochi, summer resort [the best known one probably being Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture])

* 真夏日 (manatsubi, a true summer day [when the temperature exceeds 30 C])

* ゲリラ豪雨 (gerira gōu, “guerrilla,” or unpredictable, localized torrential downpours)

Dietary measures aside, 暑くて眠れない (atsukute, nemurenai, it’s too hot to sleep) is a frequently heard complaint. And Japan is indeed getting hotter. According to past meteorological data, the number of 熱帯夜 (nettaiya, so-called tropical nights), when the temperature remains above 25 C, has doubled over the past 35 years, rising from an average of 15.8 days from 1965 to 1970 to 29.4 days between 2001 and 2005.

To help people cope, stores put all kinds of 睡眠グッズ (suimin guzzu, sleep merchandise) on sale, such as pillows made with そば殻 (sobagara, buckwheat chaff), which, while a bit bumpy, permit air to circulate, thereby absorbing less body heat. Pharmacies also sell ice pillows you can chill in the refrigerator freezer compartment until bedtime and which remain cold until morning.

I survived my first seven or eight summers in Japan without air conditioning at home. (By the late 1960s, commuter railways were only just starting to air-condition the cars.) Because average daytime temperatures were also slightly cooler, and since the inside of the house began cooling down by around 9 p.m., I made it through the nights with an open window, a 扇風機 (senpūki, electric fan) and 蚊取り線香 (katori senkō, mosquito coils).

From quite some time ago, I began using odorless electric devices to repel mosquitoes, but it appears the coils remain popular in rural parts of the country, and I get the impression Japanese associate summer with the characteristic scent of the burning coils. The 元祖 (ganso, originator) of this product is a brand named Kincho (Golden Cock), adorned with the image of a rooster, that is pitched in TV ads using the catchphrase 日本の夏、金鳥の夏 (Nihon no natsu, Kincho no natsu — Japan’s summer, Kincho’s summer).

The longest type of these coils, named 渦巻 (uzumaki), will burn for about nine hours. To prevent the ash from spreading or singeing the tatami, the coils are typically placed inside a ceramic pig figurine also known as a 蚊遣りぶた (kayari buta).

Out of curiosity, I perused the Web site of Kincho’s manufacturer, Dainihon Jochugiku Co., Ltd., and learned that the rooster trademark was registered in 1910 and was inspired by an old aphorism that goes 鶏口と為るも牛後と為る無かれ (Keiko to naru mo gyūgo to naru nakare, Better to be the head of a rooster than the rump of a cow). Sounds good to me.

In the next several weeks, TV fare will shift to summer reruns; the National High School Baseball Tournament at Koshien Stadium; and almost nightly documentary programs, many with moving personal testimonials, on the horrors of World War II. While not an official holiday, Aug. 15 is memorialized as 終戦記念日 (shūsen kinenbi, the date of the war’s end). The day’s official name, a prime example of bureaucratese, is 戦没者を追悼し平和を祈念する日 (senbotsusha wo tsuitō shi heiwa wo kinen suru hi, the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace).