It’s that time of year again. Perpetually iron-gray skies, puddles, mud, clashing umbrellas, fogged-up train windows, damp shoes and damper spirits. It’s “tsuyu”: the rainy season, when nature goes into its annual wet-blanket act.
Basil Hall Chamberlain, that acute but skeptical observer of all things Japanese, once wrote that the rainy season was nothing but a tiresome superstition. “The rain,” he said, “is always pronounced exceptional. Never, it is alleged, was so wet a season known before, properly conducted years admitting of no rain but in June and the first week or two of July. . . .”
In support of his contrary view, Chamberlain cited statistics for the last quarter of the 19th century showing that while from April through July nearly every other day was rainy, in the flanking months of March and August rain fell as often as one day in three, and in September and October the average number of wet days rose again to one in two. In other words, he concluded cheerfully, it rains all the time in Japan, no matter what the season.
Modern statistics bear him out. According to some measurements, in fact, more rain falls in the Kanto region in September and October than in June and July. By anyone’s reckoning, September is wetter than July. Meteorologically speaking, things appear not to have changed much in the century since Chamberlain tried to debunk the idea of the tsuyu.
But statistics say one thing, our senses another. Nobody in Tokyo, for example, where it rained virtually without stopping for a whole week after the rainy season’s official start the Thursday before last, is likely to argue that mid-June to early July is not different from other times of the year. It is not just a matter of how much rain falls; it has to do with the kind of rain — a soft, ceaseless dripping, like a leaky tap, which breeds a black and murderous mood unknown in spring or autumn. Thunderstorms and heavy, sudden showers followed by sunshine are cathartic, even exhilarating, in a way that the creepy rains of tsuyu are not. The statistics that would really be worth seeing are those concerning the seasonal incidence of violence.
Yet with a concerted effort, it is just possible to take a different slant on the rainy season; mental health, indeed, requires that we try. The trick is to forget inconvenience and focus on beauty. What beauty? you growl, shaking the acid raindrops off your new suit. Well, the blurred, flecked, misty kind of beauty that the Impressionists first taught the world to see around the time Chamberlain came to Japan. Shiny black boughs. Purple irises in lightly falling rain. Neon reflected off wet streets. And let’s not forget the umbrella, that annoying but useful object that is the staple of so many urban Impressionist paintings.
If you can manage to take a less jaundiced view of the umbrella, you will be halfway to achieving a balanced attitude to the rainy season and its discontents. So many mixed feelings are inspired by this humble accessory. Everyone knows the negatives: It is too easy to lose or forget. It always has at least one wonky spoke. It drips on you in the bus. In a crowd, it is an eye-threatening weapon. (There are few scenarios scarier than a line of umbrella-equipped pedestrians facing you across a Shibuya intersection.) And here in Japan, it will probably forever remind people of a morning five years ago when a handful of criminal psychopaths jabbed their umbrella spikes into bags of sarin on the Tokyo subway.
But it has positives, too. It keeps you dry, sort of. It has inspired some humanitarian inventions — like the device that dispenses long, narrow plastic bags for people to put their wet umbrellas in while they shop. And it is, from time to time, a thing of beauty. It doesn’t take a Renoir to appreciate women’s umbrellas unfurling on a rainy street like so many colorful flowers. (We won’t mention men’s boring black or navy-blue umbrellas here). A gaggle of first-graders going by wearing yellow raincoats and carrying yellow or orange umbrellas looks like a flock of chicks, or daffodils on legs — at any rate, a sight to smile at. And there is nothing quite so picturesque as black-haired girl in the rain with a red umbrella.
As with so much else in life, it all depends on how you choose to look at it. So make the most of the rainy season; it only has three or four weeks left to go. There’s an upside, though, if you should become too addicted to the joys of wet weather: September is just around the corner.
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