The Myth of the Four Seasons

An Example of Meaning Colored by Culture

"The “seasons” most Japanese refer to when they explain their pride to outsiders are all-inclusive. The festivals and bounty are the seasons."

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Any Westerner who has spent some time in Japan will have heard this one, and probably reacted with puzzlement, if not total dismissal. It goes like this: the Japanese native, wishing to impress the visitor with the magnificence of his or her country of birth, will point out that Japan has four seasons! This is usually followed by a long pause while the Western guest waits for the punch line. None is forthcoming, however, because this is a very real and widespread perception amongst the Japanese, and is worth examining for cultural insight. Visitors from the equator or poles might be impressed, but since most other parts of the globe are blessed with seasons, usually divided into four broad categories, the initial response is often to wonder whether the Japanese are actually aware of general climatic reality. Of course they are, and this is a perfect example of a statement so colored by cultural background that its true meaning is rarely understood.

It is too easy to shrug off the Myth of the Four Seasons as a standard tag line that is directed at foreigners in an attempt to buoy the country’s image while adding to the “inscrutability factor” that the Japanese seem so fond of accrediting to their culture. The reality goes a little deeper. Not long ago I ran across a poll conducted by a major Japanese television broadcaster that tabulated opinions on why people felt they were fortunate to be Japanese and what they thought was the most appealing characteristic of their country. The majority of respondents cited the “Japan has four seasons” mantra. That was it! The main reason for national pride and satisfaction! So this is an internal perception and not just a façade that is presented to the outside world, but what does it actually mean?

Here’s my translation: “Japan’s four seasons are marked and celebrated in distinctly Japanese ways that are defining elements of Japanese culture.” The mention of spring, for example, immediately elicits thoughts about planning for the cherry blossom season, and about where and with whom the cherry-blossom viewing party might be enjoyed. Spring is so strongly identified by those festivities that it is commonly known as “cherry-blossom season.” Summer is the season of the “O-Bon” holidays which, with the exception of the New Year, is the only time most businesses actually close for more than a long weekend (usually around a week or 10 days) so that everyone can return to their home town to visit and tidy up the family gravesite and welcome the spirits of the ancestors for a few days of feasting and family togetherness. Of course not everyone follows the tradition – huge numbers of Japanese take this opportunity to travel overseas – but O-Bon is the defining event of summer. Autumn is closely associated with “shinmai,” the harvest of new rice. In fact, autumn is commonly known as “the season of appetite” because of the many types of produce that appear at the market at this time of year. It is also “sports season,” when temperatures cool down enough to allow people to get out and participate in physical activities that are limited during the very hot and humid summer months. Winter is marked by “O-Shogatsu,” the New Year, which involves countless peripheral festivities, now including a dissipated version of Christmas, that stretch over several weeks. There are innumerable other local festivals that herald the coming and going of the seasons around the country, but those mentioned above are events generally recognized and simultaneously observed throughout the country.

The seasonal festivities, as well as the flora and harvests that are associated with the seasons, are inextricably woven into the culture and have been depicted in traditional arts and crafts for centuries. The “seasons” most Japanese refer to when they explain their pride to outsiders are all-inclusive. To them, the festivals and bounty are the seasons. It’s not just the climatic conditions. Of course the Japanese are not the only race to celebrate the four seasons in art and culture. Antonio Vivaldi’s best-known collection of concertos – The Four Seasons – is a grand example (and the mere existence of this distinguished work, as well as countless others on the same theme, should serve as a clue to those who aren’t quite convinced about the existence of seasons outside of well-seasoned Japan). But the connection with festivals and harvest has been somewhat lost to pragmatism in the West. When we hear the word “season” we’re more likely to think of temperatures and perhaps seasonal produce than cultural activities. The diversity of most Western societies compared to Japan’s relatively monolithic culture also contributes to this misalignment in perception.

Having laid out what I believe to be an accurate interpretation of the Myth of the Four Seasons, I should probably also point out that a significant number of Japanese simply regurgitate it and a sizeable quota of other local legends because that’s what they’ve been told. I’m quite sure that The Myth is often preached to thoroughly mystified outsiders without any understanding of the cultural contrast it involves or the confusion it causes. It is one of many precepts that are handed down from generation to generation and swallowed whole without thought or analysis. Handed-down policies and opinions are not particularly unusual in the West, but Japan’s education and social systems depend on unquestioning acceptance to a comparatively larger degree. The important thing for a Westerner trying to break the comprehension barrier is to acknowledge and accommodate the differences. Simply understanding that there is a perception gap can make a huge difference to your response, and ultimately how you come across to your cultural counterparts.