Anticipating the seasons

If you live long enough in Japan, you might begin to think about “nature” in a different way (what “nature” represents in Canada is markedly different and, perhaps, a topic for another blog post). There is no escaping “seasons” here or the declaration one is bound to hear from Japanese people on occasion: “Japan has four seasons.”  At first, this either makes you laugh or it makes you crazy (if the latter, you probably shouldn’t bother staying here much longer) and you reflexively answer with a somewhat sarcastic tone and something like: “So? We have four seasons where I’m from too.”

While it’s true that many of us experience seasons where we are from, what you begin to realize is that, in Japan, “seasons” are more about all the things attached  to them than the actual seasons themselves. In other words, every season here is so loaded with culturally significant symbolism that, as time passes, those symbols start resonating with you via some kind of cultural osmosis. How long does it take? Good question…I don’t know…depends on the person, but I’d say not less than three years on average.

The other thing about “seasons” is that it’s not just about the resonance, it’s about anticipation. Often, in a tokonoma, you will find a hanging scroll (kakemono) with either some calligraphy or a painting of a traditional scene or object. The kakemono might be seasonal and, if it is, as the next season approaches, it should be changed to anticipate the upcoming season.

On that note, I was thinking the other day, when doing some mental planning about possible upcoming photography excursions, that ume (plum) blossom season is just around the corner and I’ll be out at the park for the annual viewing ritual in no time. In order to get ready for that, here are some shots from last year. These were all taken at Koishikawa Korakuen, near Iidabashi in Tokyo. [EDIT]: I should add that all of these photos were taken on February 14 last year, which means we are just a few weeks away from blossoms.

And, last but not least, a little bit of a magical scene from the centre of the garden:

This entry is part of Anna’s lovely photo meme – Volume 1, issue 10:

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  • A very thoughtful entry. I find that most often the “Japan has four seasons” is a knee jerk reaction of sorts. The people here have been so conditioned to believe that Japan is unique that very often it’s inconceivable to them that somewhere else there are also 4 seasons, also loaded with culturally significant symbolism – in Sweden for example.

    • Thanks, Anna. I think there is definitely that element of automatic Nihonjinron-speak and sometimes it’s simply the fact that there can be such tunnel vision here that it really doesn’t occur to the speaker that somewhere else may be similar.

      I do think, however, that while we may have season-specific rituals wherever we are from, one difference here is the kind of ishin-denshin response to seasonal symbols. This, of course, is a learned response too, but it’s this compounded with such homogeneity that makes it stick or resonate.

  • kirsten

    ohmygoodness…When I first looked at this entry I jumped to the conclusion that blossoms were already beginning to peek out in Tokyo and I thought, “Nooo-oooo-ooooo….it’s too early!” Then I read your entry. 🙂 I can’t wait for spring to come. I love the promises of light and warmth that the cherry blossoms bring (but not so much the blue tarps under all the trees).

    • Sorry to frighten you, Kirsten! Just a few more weeks to go for the ume blossoms, so get yourself ready.

      I actually prefer plum to cherry in terms of the look, feel, and mood – I like that it’s still cold and it’s still just February when we start to get the sense of warmth around the corner. (Although, I actually remember going to look at some plum blossoms at Koishikawa Korakuen a few years ago and having to take my coat off because it was so warm, so let’s hope that’s the case this year too!)

  • Japanese tend to think of themselves and their country being unique. Well, it’s not only Japanese but also pretty much all the nation that think so. So I am glad to hear that Japanese around you are taught by you that four seasons exist in many countries!
    In terms of consciousness of the seasonal change, I can say that Japanese are bit more sensitive to the other nations probably because almost all of us used to be a farmer and our ancestors had to be sensitive to the seasons and the weather in order to make decision of farming. And our Emperor express our gratitude of harvest toward the nature and/or shinto deities by organizing matsuri and else.
    Thanks for sharing plum blossoms, I can’t wait for the spring to come!!!
    Yoshi

    • Thanks, Yoshii.

      It’s an interesting topic. A farming mindset shapes many western countries as well as we all have an agrarian history up until the Industrial Revolution. For example, in North America, the school holidays for the summer (from late June to early September) were completely designed to meet the reality that most kids (up until relatively recently) would have to help their families on the farm and with the harvest. Of course, there is now debate about changing this lengthy summer break because it no longer meets the needs of most urban/suburban school kids.

      As for Japan, I think a lot of it has to do with, as you mention, the belief that Japan is unique and also the filtering down of certain aesthetic sensibilities from art, literature, and poetry to the masses. For example, the universally understood notion (universally in Japan, that is) that the cherry blossoms are ephemeral and they should therefore be viewed and appreciated because, like everything, they will be gone soon. There is a real poignance attached to that fact here that I don’t think Westerners carry (unless they spend time thinking about it or spend time here, etc.). In other words, it’s a kind of received emotion here, passed down through generations: it is a process of culturalization. Something similar in Western art/literature might be the awareness that winter brings death and spring is a time of renewal.

      Anyway, regardless of what they symbolize, I too am looking forward to the plum blossoms here in a few short weeks!

  • somehow I’m more fond of ume than sakura. In my old garden back in Kyushu I’ve planted one ume for each one of my children. I’ll be actually going back this week for a business trip and can’t wait to see them blossoming now.