The famous psychologist William James once said, “We learn to swim in winter and skate in summer.” What he meant was that relaxing downtime is essential for unconsciously processing the lessons from busier times. James never experienced the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer, but if he had, he might have understood how the summer forces a break from the speed and intensity of modern life and gives one time to think.
The summer in Japan is good at draining the energy from almost anyone. This year, heat seems to have descended on the country both politically, with the recent election, and environmentally, with all the force of global warming. After another sweaty outdoor walk, the old Japanese standbys of yukata, sandals and handheld fans seem once again like sensible, effective relief. Those traditional coolers emphasized the virtue of just slowing down.
The summer heat forces the mind and body to unwind and start to take care of what is often overlooked in cooler times — relaxation. Most people enter a kind of summer hibernation, moving only when necessary and not consuming anything that is not chilled. Even noodles and tofu are served cold. Cooling and calming the body lets the mind wander over important life issues and start to see the world again from the viewpoint of the tatami.
The humid heat affects everyone and lets different connections arise. Normally impersonal and distant Tokyoites, for example, suddenly have a topic to discuss with strangers — the weather. It’s as if the city moved back 40 years in time to when casual conversations happened in the normal course of a slower pace of life. On train platforms, people sympathize with other passengers wiping off the sweat and fanning themselves wildly. Somehow, summer always feels like a “Tora-san” movie.
Japanese workplaces are often accused of breeding workaholic attitudes, but summertime breaks up that tendency. Holidays disrupt normal work routines and remind colleagues how important their coworkers are, especially once they are out of reach of a cell phone. Scrambling to fill in for someone else’s special knowledge of work tasks is always an eye-opener. Unusual schedules make one appreciate the intricate timing of the workplace in regular times. Most importantly, work no longer seems the main purpose of life.
In the cool of the evening, festivals spring up in neighborhoods all through the country. The sense of community the festivals inspire contrasts with the cooler months. Too hot to carry around a mikoshi (portable shrine), summer festivals seem calmer and more leisurely. Dancing around a tower to ancient songs may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but wherever one goes, the music floats through the night. Through most of Japan, the local community, whether actually formed by merchants, neighborhood committees or shrines, still remains a functioning social unit.
Families, too, are out in casually dressed force. One of the most remarkable of summer images is the large number of fathers and mothers on outings with their children. Museums, aquariums, pools and recreation spots of all kinds are packed. Despite waiting in lines and fighting for a place just to eat lunch, at least families can be together in the crowd. Although some students are locked inside studying for future exams, parents and children going out together contrasts sharply with the rest of the year when all activities are carefully organized and explicitly directed.
Obon holidays bring families together even more closely, and most people feel a tug to reunite. Yet, Obon is not just hopping on a Shinkansen and having tea with relatives; it also makes people reconsider their place in the larger scheme of things. This reconsideration of where one fits in the flow of families, genes and DNA is not such a bad thing to do once a year. Bundled up in the thick coats of winter, it seems easy to forget how one’s present life fits into the flow of history.
Sadly, the flow of history also connects to the summer anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 are dates that will never be forgotten. The grim legacy of this singularly devastating event forms part of the pensive, thoughtful mood of Japan’s summer. It connects Japan to the rest of humanity, too, forming a bond that stretches around the world to all victims of war, regardless of time or place. This summer reminder brings all humanity together in their fear and horror of death’s many terrifying forms.
And yet, from the smallest insects to the profusion of plants and humans acting out their lazier selves, life also seems to thrive in summer. Summer may just be the most human time of the year. Without it, the rest of the year would never happen.
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