Four Seasons, and Other Myths

Sep 05,2011

I've been a terrible slacker with the blog updates of late, and there is really no excuse. Well, other than that I couldn't really find anything worth writing of. So I'm going to write about the weather.

Now, before you come into this office again and complain that my most recent blog post wasn't very interesting, let me assure you that I'm just doing a small facet of my job--namely, the one that entails updating the blog on something close to a weekly basis, regardless of my or your personal feeling about the content. So unless you can make something happen (no more nuclear meltdowns, please), this is what you're going to get.

Now that that's out of the way, allow me to make an excursion into the realm of weather and differing cultural concepts about it. One of the most oft-repeated cliches in these parts is, 'We have four seasons in Japan'. The subtext, apparently, is that this is in comparison to other parts of the world that have more or fewer. However, I must be clear that throughout my time in Japan, and I have lived in four different prefectures, I have never lived in a place that had four distinct seasons.

I believe the concept of four seasons originated in England; I've heard this from several western sources, and it seems to make sense, given that in lots of places in the British Isles the year is divided into four roughly equal portions of frigid and snowy, warm with blooming stuff, balmy with green stuff, and cool with the green stuff turning to lots of different reds and yellows. The concept was imported to the lands that the British Empire colonized, and it didn't always fit. The northeastern coast of the United States is called 'New England' because the climate so resembles that of Olde England.

In other parts of the country, such as southern California, there are two seasons: a rainy one and a dry one. During the rainy one, which lasts most of the year, it rains almost every day for about three months, and all the vegetation turns lush. Then for the rest of the year, it never rains at all, and everything dies. That's why you hear all those news reports about brush fires in Los Angeles and thereabouts. But the people there largely insist on calling parts of the year according to their corresponding British-derived names: spring, summer, autumn (or fall, so called because the foliage is supposed to fall), and winter.

Now, in the first Japanese prefecture in which I dwelt, Nagano, the weather was bearable except for summer and winter. Summer started in May and lasted until September. Winter started in October and lasted through April. The standard greeting one heard as people passed one another in the street was either 'Atsui ne' or 'Samui ne' depending on the season. Never in nearly a year there did I once hear 'Ii tenki da ne'.

In lots of other places in Japan they might indeed have more distinct periods that could indeed be called spring, summer, autumn and winter, plus the rainy season, which brings us up to five. Shizuoka, where I also lived for a year, could be said to have four seasons if the rainy season counts as one, because it doesn't have any season that could properly be called winter. (Perhaps I'm being arbitrary here, but in my definition, winter is a period in which the weather is significantly cold and in which it sometimes snows.) However, these seasons are not of equal length.

Tottori has a long summer, roughly from early June to early October, whence in the space of two or three weeks it goes from summer to winter. However, it also has a reasonable spring period, with budding verdure, chirping birdies, and lots of hay fever, which is roughly from the beginning of March until the rainy season kicks off around May. So there you have it: four seasons.

Apologies to those who may be offended by my failure to recognise two autumny weeks as a proper season. If you can offer any compelling reason, you are welcome to present a case for why that period should be considered a season and the rainy season should not.

Today it's pleasantly cool, and I'm starting to feel human again.

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