The Shock of Japan’s Extreme Heat

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Japan as a nation has long possessed a keen awareness of climate. Kigo, the phrases that evoke the feel of the seasons, are the foundation of haiku poetry. Shun, the term for seasonality, guides the menu selections at dining establishments, ranging from luxury restaurants to neighborhood izakaya. The distinctive trilling of bush warblers and the drone of cicadas are deployed in films as aural markers of place and time. The blooming of cherries in spring and the progression of autumnal colors in fall are covered by newscasters as nationwide happenings. The four seasons, known as shiki, could be called the beat and meter of nearly everything traditionally Japanese.

Each time of year has its proponents, of course. But it could be argued that summer is Japan’s favorite season of all. It is a time of neighborhood festivals, of baseball tournaments, of kakigōri shaved ice and other cool treats, of visits to beaches, and of hunting for bugs in ponds and forests—the stuff that fond childhood memories are made of, which is also undoubtedly why so much anime, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo,” Makoto Shinkai’s “Summer Wars,” and Hideaki Anno’s “Evangelion,” is set in the summertime.

Now climate change may threaten Japan’s love affair with the summer season. Early in August, the Japan Meteorological Agency announced that the month of July had been the hottest on record, since 1898, when modern observation methods were introduced. The nation’s average of 25.96 degrees Celsius broke a record set forty-five years earlier. In downtown Tokyo, temperatures soared nine degrees Celsius (sixteen degrees Fahrenheit) above the seasonal average.

Visitors to Japan, and its capital in particular, have long commented on the oppressiveness of the nation’s summers. A monsoon climate delivers torrential rains at the end of spring, followed by a blanket of punishing humidity that only grudgingly lifts with the arrival of fall. “The heat is great,” the writer and translator Lafcadio Hearn remarked in June of 1894. “To enjoy great heat we should be able to dress or undress as we please, have freedom from dust, and the luxury of moving water—whether river, lake, or sea. I fear Tokyo has not these.”

Those who could afford to decamped to the seaside or highlands such as Karuizawa or Hakone, which remain popular summer destinations today. But city dwellers who couldn’t escape the capital devised all sorts of ingenious methods for surviving sweltering days: swapping kimonos for diaphanous yukata robes; cooling themselves with gorgeously decorated uchiwa fans; or uchimizu, the sprinkling of water to cool down sidewalks and streets.

Perhaps the most charming method at the time was a parlor game called Hyaku-monogatari, or One Hundred Stories. At dusk, participants gathered in a room filled with a number of candles. In the course of the evening, they would swap stories of ghosts and other strange happenings, extinguishing a candle after each. This entertainment had two allures. One was that when the final tale was told and the last candle snuffed, something terrifying would supposedly manifest in the gloom. But even more compelling of a draw was the prospect of cooling down with shivers of ecstatic terror.

One Hundred Stories fell out of favor as Japan modernized and cities introduced cooling technologies, but the nation has continued to invent new ways to beat the heat. On the streets of Japanese cities, the once familiar flip-flap of uchiwa fans has been replaced by the whirrs of personal cooling gadgets. Construction workers and outdoor laborers wear jackets equipped with built-in fans. Pedestrians use handheld electric ones, or don chilled neck rings that are kept in a freezer until worn. There are personal air-conditioning units, hung around the neck, that direct breezes at the wearer’s face. The heat has even started affecting summer fashions: women have long used parasols to shade themselves from the sun, but they are now being joined by increasing numbers of men.

Other effects of the relentless increase in average temperatures are less visible. Japan’s beloved cherry blossoms are blooming, on average, one day earlier every decade, while the fall colors are arriving up to three days later. Beneath the waters of Tokyo Bay, tropical fish and corals of the sort formerly only seen in South Pacific waters have begun displacing typical sea life, such as seaweeds, abalone, and sardines, raising the spectre of shortages of locally caught foods. Rising temperatures are feared to cause decreased harvests of rice and shiitake mushrooms, both key ingredients of Japanese cuisine.

And then there are the burdens of a hyper-aged society. Japan is the first nation to experience a demographic tipping point where more than twenty per cent of the population is over sixty-five years old. Heat has proven a silent killer of these older citizens. Thirteen hundred people die of heatstroke annually in the country, the majority of them elderly. This is compounded by a widespread reluctance to use air-conditioning among the senior population, who were raised without the technology in their lives. It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that a majority of homes came to possess wall- or window-mounted air-conditioning units. Central-heating systems remain a rarity in private residences, meaning the hallways and bathrooms of homes are often left without air-conditioning. Schools were even slower to adopt air-conditioning; a majority of classrooms lacked it as recently as 2017. In two widely reported cases in late July, elderly couples died of suspected heatstroke in their homes, which were equipped with air-conditioning but weren’t turned on.

But the air-conditioning issue is as much about economics as it is about culture. Half of Japan’s public-welfare spending goes to support the elderly, and a quarter of single elderly women live below the poverty line. Even among those who do embrace the technology, a major jump in electricity costs this year is forcing those on limited budgets to choose between sweating and switching air-conditioners on.

Japan suffers little in the way of the culture wars that dominate America’s sociopolitical discourse; in surveys, a large majority of citizens have said that they want their nation to take an active role in combatting climate change. Japan, where the pioneering Kyoto Protocol to limit global greenhouse-gas emissions was signed in 1997, was indeed once at the forefront of global environmental action. But critics feel that their leaders have failed to deliver on these early ambitions. The 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor took a large swath of nuclear power plants offline, forcing the country to turn back to natural-gas and coal power, and even construct new coal-fired plants. The pandemic slowed down already sluggish environmental efforts even more. Leaders refuse to state a date by which they plan to stop relying on fossil fuels, while large-scale renewable-energy projects remain in bureaucratic limbo. And there has been little in the way of public pushback.

But that may be starting to change, at least on a local level. In February, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government approved a real-estate developer’s plans to remake Meiji Jingu Gaien, one of the city’s few oases of greenery. It contains the Meiji Jingu Stadium, one of the last still standing where Babe Ruth played, and the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, which will both be razed and rebuilt. The baseball stadium will be incorporated into a high-rise hotel complex, alongside a new office tower and a series of other mixed-use buildings. The remaking of such a beloved sports facility would have been controversial enough on its own. But the project will also require cutting down about a thousand trees, many of them more than a century old—a precious commodity anywhere but particularly in a cityscape as dense as Tokyo. The plan’s opponents see it as akin to “building skyscrapers in the middle of Central Park.” Proponents decry the protests as NIMBYism. The Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, dismissed the criticism as “propaganda.” Koike has vowed to forge on even as the opposition continues to mount. A number of high-profile citizens have lent their voices to the protests, including the novelist Haruki Murakami and the late musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.

I have been visiting Japan since the early nineties and have lived in Tokyo for the last twenty years. I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the climate of which isn’t terribly different from that of Tokyo. But I spent much of my youth in air-conditioned spaces, whether home, car, school, or mall. Honestly, I never paid much attention to seasonal weather patterns unless they were outliers of the sort that might, hopefully, affect school attendance. When I came to Japan, I was surprised at the role that weather played in daily life.

Virtually every conversation, whether a written correspondence or a casual chat, opened with a remark about the weather, and locals described seasonal changes in great detail, whether some favorite seasonal dish, the coming of the monsoon, the arrival of the cherry blossoms. Seasonal idioms abound, such as Haru-ichiban, the first blustery breeze of spring, and Fuyu-shōgun, “general winter,” an anthropomorphization of deep winter cold. But I have lost count of the number of times that my wife, who is Japanese, or her friends, have lamented how unpredictable the weather has grown since their childhoods. And this isn’t simply idle, rose-tinted reminiscence. Studies show that Tokyo’s summers really are growing in length, with hot weather lasting some fifty days longer in recent years as compared with the twentieth century.

For generations of Japanese people, climate has been more than simply weather; it represents a culture, even a sort of identity. Climate change is beginning to throw these cherished traditions into disarray. Many seasonal kigo, those building blocks of haiku, are losing their meaning as the climate continues to shift. Take koharubiyori, a kigo used to describe what was once a rare summery day in the midst of autumn. “Nowadays, more days are warm at that time of year,” the poet Etsuya Hirose told Nikkei. “So you can’t really empathize with that kigo, that season and emotion.”

In times of old, the people of Japan distracted themselves during the doldrums of summer with scary stories. But there is no ignoring the changes that are happening now, as rising temperatures transform Japanese culture and expose rifts in society. Japan, ahead of the curve in ways enviable and not, has long served as a harbinger for the troubles of post-industrial nations. As the surveys and protests in Tokyo show, many Japanese people seem to feel that the time has come for a new story, in which leaders address climate change with open eyes. ♦


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