For a lot of people, this is the best month of the year, and yet, more suicides tend to happen in gogatsu (五月, May) than any other month, according to a report by the Kōseirōdōshō (厚生労働省, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare). Despite the glorious satsukibare (五月晴れ, sunny May weather), the tsutsuji (つつじ, azaleas) in full bloom and traditional spring delights such as hatsugatsuo (初鰹, first bonito of the season) gracing the table, May — otherwise known as satsuki (皐月 or 五月) — is tinged with sorrow.
My friend Ayumi says she hates May and the entire spring season, and ticked off the reasons: kafunshō (花粉症, hay fever), mukumi (むくみ, swelling, aka edema or dropsy), hadaare (肌荒れ, skin break-outs) — not to mention the fact that Ayumi got married in April and was divorced a year later, in May. “Haru wa daikkirai” (春はだいっきらい, “I hate spring”) is her annual refrain, and she makes it a point to stay home during this time as much as possible.
True, spring is fraught with trouble — especially for the modern woman who has all that work-life balance to figure out as well as battling the kōishō (後遺症, after-effects) of winter colds and the hectic hanbōki (繁忙期, busy time) of April. According to Edo Period celebrity doctor Kaibara Ekken (貝原益軒) (1630-1714), April to May is when mizu (水, water) is trapped in various parts of the body, causing swelling and hie (冷え, chill), the widely acknowledged enemy No. 1 of the Japanese woman. And for centuries, the most effective way to combat hie has been deemed to be the o-furo (お風呂, bath). A good long soak in the tub or at least an ashiyu (足湯, soaking of the feet in hot water) after coming home from work is mandatory for warding off May illnesses — and this goes for both men and women.
The majority of the urban Japanese however, try to ride out the month with corporate shinbokukai (親睦会, friendly drinking parties), designed to break the ice between new employees and smooth work relationships in new departments. A good idea, but it’s wise to keep in mind that lots of cold beer and alcohol does the body no favors, especially during May nights when the temperature suddenly drops without warning and gusts of wind blow down from the canyons between the kōsō biru (高層ビル, high-rise buildings). Colds contracted during this time are apt to last right up until tsuyu (梅雨, rainy season) when prolonged karada no fuchō (からだの不調, physical dysfunction) meets torturous humidity in a damp apartment and decide to hook up, seemingly forever. Bad news for all of us.
The Japanese once had the whole shikke (湿気, humidity) thing under control, and we knew how to roll with the seasonal punches instead of locking ourselves indoors, inviting utsu (鬱, depression) and sickness. My grandmother held that the only antidote for muggy weather was to go right out in the middle of it, and shooed all the kids outside on May weekends, which are apt to be ruined by rain and chill. When we got back, though, there was shun no kankitsurui (旬の柑橘類, in-season citrus fruits) to look forward to, along with quaint Showa Era sweets like Pucchin Purin (プッチンプリン, Pucchin pudding). Thankfully, both are still around.
Having grown old — I mean older — Japanese adults like myself now know to drink atatakai o-cha (暖かいお茶, warm tea) when shikke is high, to tune the body for the coming summer. In the workplace, women will have pullovers or scarves ready to combat the excessive reibō (冷房, air conditioning) that gets turned on this time of year, despite the lack of working genpatsu (原発, nuclear power plants).
The good news is that these days, Japanese air conditioners are built to deal with humidity more than mere heat — a function that’s easier on energy resources, your wallet and your body. Turn on the joshitsu (除湿, dehumidifier), set the temperature to 28 degrees Celsius and feel the kaitekisa (快適さ, sense of wellness) seep into the room.
According to the teaching of wakan (和漢, Japanese-style traditional Chinese medicine), May is also the month of ira ira (イライラ, irritation) and ikari (怒り, anger), as the pent-up frustrations of winter find a release in warm weather. A lot of Japanese are fukigen (不機嫌, glum) at this time, and many of us find it hard to get up in the morning. Popularly known as gogatsubyō (五月病, “May disease”), the symptoms include yaruki no nasa (やる気のなさ, not wanting to do anything), fumin (不眠, sleeplessness) and shokuyoku gentai (食欲減退, loss of appetite), among other unpleasantries, and it’s one of the most dreaded phenomenons of the season.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause, but the gogatsubyō is as familiar as summer typhoons, and woven into the fabric of life on the archipelago. The trick is not to fight it, but to ease up and yōjō suru (養生する, nourish your inner strength) — another piece of wisdom from Kaibara-sensei (貝原先生, Dr. Kaibara).
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