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More thoughts on how climate change is reshaping Japanese culture
My latest essay for The New Yorker, “The Shock of Japan’s Extreme Heat,” profiles the impact of rising temperatures on Japanese cultures popular and traditional. Please check it out! As anyone who has spent any amount of time in Japan or studying things Japanese knows, the seasons and the weather play an integral role in everything from daily interactions to fine art here. They are, in a very real way, the heartbeat of things traditionally Japanese. But climate change is starting to affect this sense of seasonality in subtle ways. I wanted to share a few additional examples that didn’t make it into the final piece.
Take, for instance, the calendar of the “72 Microseasons.” Derived from Chinese sources and adapted for the Japanese climate, it chronicles annual natural happenings in incredibly granular detail. The cycles of plant and animal life it encodes are intended both literally, as a sort of almanac, and poetically, for use as allusion in painting and verse. March 21-25, to pick just one, is “Sparrows start to nest.” Then there’s one of my favorites, May 10-14, “Worms surface.” I will admit that I haven’t rushed into the garden with a magnifying glass to confirm this every May, but there’s no question that things seem to have shifted in recent years. For example, August 8-12 is supposedly “Cooler winds blow.” I wish. We all do.
The seasonal shifts are about more than just poetry; they affect day to day life, too. Kimono are one example. During pandemic, my wife Hiroko studied to become accredited as a kimono teacher, so I’ve picked up a certain amount of superficial knowledge on the topic through osmosis. Kimono are carefully keyed to the seasons, both in terms of colors and patterns, and of the material of the garments themselves. Speaking very reductively there are three basic types of kimono: awase, which are lined and worn in the cooler months; thinner hitoe, which do not have linings and are intended for warmer times; and natsumono, literally “summerwear,” which is thinnest of all.
There are rules as to when one swaps their awase for hitoe (June), when summerwear is acceptable (only in July and August), and when one swaps the lighter hitoe back for the heavier awase (end of September). But with summer heat now lasting up to fifty days longer than in previous centuries, the traditional charts are being thrown off, forcing kimono aficionados to bend long-held rules about what should be worn when. Now it isn’t at all uncommon to see hitoe worn significantly out of season. Something that would have been seen as a fashion faux pas in decades past is fast becoming a new tradition out of necessity.
This connects into something else I learned from Hiroko: suzushige, taking pleasure in seeing or hearing things that carry a sense of cooling factor. Kimono wearers dress for comfort but also to convey the season to those who see them, in a sort of visual conversation with society at large. There are other kinds of these shared pleasures: catching the sound of furin wind chimes, for example, or a neighbor practicing their flute in anticipation of a summer festival.
Modern technology is shifting these subtle signs of seasonality. Everyone empathizes with why workmen need to wear those fan-equipped jackets I wrote about in my essay, but they look uncomfortable, resembling as they do puffy winter parkas. And there isn’t much chance to hear the chimes of furin or the trilling of a summer flutes, sealed inside an air-conditioned home. As Japan introduces new ways of dealing with spiralling summer temperatures, suzushige has become an increasingly precious commodity.
My last post was about the passing of the famed anime background artist Nizo Yamamoto. When Yamamoto was working on the 1986 Studio Ghibli film Castle in the Sky: Laputa, he was tasked with rendering what director Hayao Miyazaki called “the dragon’s lair,” a permanent storm that cloaks the titular Laputa from the view of people below. Miyazaki wanted to show a night sky filled with toweing cumulonimbus clouds; Yamamoto argued that in Japan, such phenomena naturally dissapated when the atomosphere cooled in the evening. Miyazaki got his way in the end, as directors do. But as Yamamoto recalled in a 2019 painting performance, climate change means nighttime cumulonimbus clouds have become increasingly commonplace here. Perhaps Miyazaki was just, unfortunately, ahead of the curve.
Despite it all, summer remains a favorite season for me, particularly out in the countryside. So in closing, let me share a summer scene that looks like something right out of a Yamamoto background painting. I took this shot on Mount Miwa in Nara Prefecture last weekend, where I was tagging along with Hiroko on a research trip to Omiwa Jinja shrine for a book she’s writing. But more on that very cool project in the near future.
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