どうなっちゃってるの今年の夏 (Dō natchatteru no kotoshi no natsu, What’s up with this summer?).

For the past three months, this phrase was pretty much the standard icebreaker among friends, colleagues and family all over the archipelago. The summer of 2018 is one for the books — busting meteorological records, wreaking havoc and devastating entire regions along the coast of western Japan.

To tally up, there was 西日本豪雨 (nishi-Nihon gōu, heavy rain in western Japan) followed by 災害級の暑さ (saigaikyū no atsusa, catastrophic heat) and a total of 23 typhoons, nine of which occurred in August. Most recently, there was the 北海道地震 (Hokkaidō jishin, Hokkaido earthquake), accompanied by epic 土砂災害 (doshasaigai, mudslides) that even caused a mountain to collapse by several hundred meters. Politicians and celebrities repeatedly intoned: 被災された皆さまに心よりお悔やみ申し上げます(Hisai sareta mina-sama ni kokoro yori o-kuyami mōshi-agemasu, I offer my deepest condolences to all the victims).

The word common to all these phenomena is 災い (wazawai, catastrophic misfortune). It’s made up of the kanji for 火 (hi, fire) and, curiously, is topped by what look like three hiragana く(ku); in fact, this is a squeezed version of the kanji for river, 川 (kawa). Wazawai is an old, old kanji that originally meant the wrath of the heavens — floods and fire — descending upon the land to punish evildoers.

Japan has always been disaster-prone, with 地震 (jishin, earthquakes), 津波 (tsunami), 台風 (taifū, typhoons) and 洪水 (kōzui, floods) happening at regular intervals throughout history. No area has managed to circumvent the wazawai, though some parts, like 厳島神社 (Itsukushima Jinja, Itsukushima Shrine) in Hiroshima and the 天橋立 (Amano Hashidate) sandbar in northern Kyoto, were said to be so sacred as to be immune to wazawai. Alas, this has proven not to be the case.

The phrase 災い転じて福となす (Wazawai tenjite fuku to nasu, Bad luck turns into good fortune) has positive connotations in modern-day Japan, but 100 years ago, the person who could pull this off might have been considered 狡猾(kōkatsu, sly) or underhanded. The older generation of Japanese were taught that wazawai must be accepted, and that to actively convert it into fuku was not quite the done thing, much like 火事場泥棒 (kajiba dorobō, stealing from a burning house).

There are a lot of kanji terms pertaining to wazawai. The biggie is 災害 (saigai, disaster or catastrophe), which is useful to know for inbound travelers — when you hear the word 災害警報 (saigai keihō, disaster alert) over a loudspeaker in an airport or train station, it’s time to take another look at your holiday plans. The other major one is 災難 (sainan, misfortune), which is more personal. It befalls an individual, and could range from a train delay on the way to work to major injuries in a car accident.

Sainan could theoretically be diminished by carrying around an 御守り (o-mamori, talisman), specifically one for 災難除け (sainanyoke, avoiding misfortune), or through 善行 (zenkō, performing good acts). My grandmother was a stickler for the latter, and when we kids were too rowdy or we neglected to help around the house, she would reprimand us with the phrase バチが当たるよ! (Bachi ga ataru yo!, Karma’s gonna get you!). It’s a casual way of saying that a dose of wazawai is heading your way. Bachi is a term used in Buddhism to refer to 罰 (batsu, punishment) of the divine kind, and the phrase is still in circulation, even among kids.

Wazawai can largely be divided into two categories —人災 (jinsai, manmade disasters) and 天災 (tensai, “heaven-sent” or natural disasters), with subdivisions such as 戦災 (sensai, war disasters) and 震災 (shinsai, earthquake disasters). Victims of wazawai and saigai are 被災者 (hisaisha) and the damage is 被害 (higai). Note that the character 被る (kaburu, to wear or drape over) figures into the words here, suggesting that disasters are worn, like clothing that stays on the body though you’d rather take it off.

Interestingly, 被災者 (hisaisha) are disaster victims but 被害者 (higaisha) are victims of 事件 (jiken, police incidents) ranging from murder to petty theft. In Japan, there is an ongoing debate about revealing the names of both hisaisha and higaisha. Often, 遺族 (izoku, surviving family) will refuse permission to reveal names, at least during the first days of news coverage. In recent disasters, media have been much more restrained in terms of publicizing victims’ identities than they have been traditionally.

Over the summer, we heard the unfortunate phrase 心肺停止 (shinpaiteishi, “cardiac arrest” or “showing no vital signs”) quite often, which was a bit confusing, since the press seemed to be making a distinction between shinpaiteishi and actual 死亡 (shibō, death). They were in fact reporting in line with a rule that’s been around for a few years now: No person can be declared dead until a 死亡通知書 (shibō tsūchisho, death certificate) has been issued by a doctor or medical facility. In disaster areas, shinpaiteishi leaves a smidgen of hope that a victim may be resuscitated with immediate medical attention, though unfortunately it very rarely works out that way.

It has been said that the four things to fear most as one goes through life in Japan are: 地震雷火事親父 (jishin kaminari kaji oyaji; earthquakes, thunder, fires, fathers). These days fathers aren’t that fearsome anymore, but the other three continue to 翻弄する (honrō suru, mess with) everyone that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Which is why many of us tend to say 気を付けて (ki o tsukete, take care) as part of our farewell greeting: The Japanese know too well that the seeds of wazawai are always in the wind.

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