Why Do People Say Japan is the Only Country With Four Seasons?

Japanese culture has a lot of beliefs that don’t always make much sense from a Western point of view. In Japan, drinking cold beverages is clearly bad for your health.

One of the stranger assertions that you’ll hear is that one of Japan’s best features is its four, distinct seasons. That may sound benign at first, but for some, the implication is that these four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall—are unique characteristic of Japan, that it’s the only country in the world that enjoys this natural phenomenon.

As a foreigner, my first reaction to hearing that was one of incredulity. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! Places all over the world have four seasons, how could somebody actually believe that they only happen in Japan?!

Obviously, some this isn’t something that every single Japanese person believes and will vehemently defend, but it’s still something that’s present in the popular consciousness. In the years since I’ve heard about this belief, I’ve wondered a lot about where it comes from.

Here are some of the theories—from the absurd to the more credible—about how this belief about the four seasons came about:

Poetry

One theory I’ve heard behind the Japanese four seasons belief is that it’s derived from Chinese poetry. Japan, through its cultural ties with China, has a long, rich tradition of poetry celebrating the four seasons.

Chinese poetry and, subsequently Japanese poetry, have historically been celebrated and influential artforms in their respective cultures and around the world. You only have to look at the haiku style of poetry and its prevalence outside of Japan to see poetry’s cultural impact.

One of the most common themes of East Asian poetry is nature, and more specifically the unique feelings of the seasons. There’s even a special word for a word or phrase in poetry about the seasons: kigo (季語).

three-haikai-poetes

Take these poems by master poet Matsuo Basho:

Рiping autumn wind
blows with wild piercing voice
through the sliding door…

Soon they have to die,
but there is no sign of it
in cicadas’ cries.

Tis the first snow—
Just enough to bend
The gladiolus leaves!

Each of these paints a very vivid picture of a particular season, envoking different, natural phenomena—like cicada, autumn wind, and snow—to set the tone. This Japanese Life has a great post about Japanese poets celebrating the turning of the seasons with more examples.

Evidently, Korean people also sometimes make the claim that their country is unique in enjoying four seasons. This would support the Chinese poetry theory, since both Korea and Japan have a shared cultural heritage from China.

I’m not sure how Japan and Korea will settle which country truly has four seasons. This could be an issue bigger than the disputed islands! Will this be the next big diplomatic struggle between the two nations? Time will tell.

Festivals

The Japanese calendar is littered with all kinds of cultural celebrations, both national and local. Many of them are based on the turning of the season, or at the very least coincide very closely with the changing of one season to the next.

In Japan, going out to picnic and watch the cherry blossoms during hanami is an obvious, visible marker that spring has arrived. Obon often marks the end of the summer, with the ever-present cicadas providing background music to the festivities.

hanami

Photo by gullevek

These nationally-celbrated holidays give a cadence to the passing of the year, marking the beginnings and ends to the seasons. Japan’s seasonal festivals are far from unique in their timing and significance—I can think of many holidays celebrated here in the US that have seasonal significant.

In the United States, Memorial Day and Labor Day bookend the summer, and harvest celebrations Halloween and Thanksgiving provide landmarks in the fall. That’s not to mention commononly religious holidays like Easter, which fits in with the whole theme of spring as a time of renewal.

It may be that the holidays and festivals in Japan are so distinctly Japanese that it can be hard to see the equivalents in other cultures. Labor Day? Is that like Obon?

Japanese Exceptionalism

One theory that Koichi mentioned in a Tofugu post years ago blames a set of fringe beliefs known as “Nihonjinron.” Nihonjinron comprises a wide set of ridiculous claims about how Japanese people are unique and, in some cases, superior to other peoples. These beliefs are ultra-nationalist and borderline (if not blatantly) racist.

Some Nihonjinron beliefs cover Japan’s supposedly unique geography, and how it’s affected Japanese biology and psychology. It’s easy to imagine how this train of thought might lead to the notion of a uniquely Japanese four seasons.

japanese-imperial-army-flag

The literature blog No-Sword quotes one Nihonjinron author who, while admitting that Europe also has four seasons, notes that Japan’s climate is unique among Asia:

Japan is rich in seasonal change without widely separated extremes in temperature, and this climate must surely be the most important foundation stone on which the Japanese way of life and artistic expression rest

I should stress that these kind of Nihonjinron beliefs are, of course, absurd and far from mainstream Japanese thought; not to mention that this kind of environmental determinism is largely frowned upon in academic fields. It is, however, very easy to draw a line between these Nihonjinron beliefs and belief in Japan’s unique four seasons.

What’s In a Season?

I have to come clean and at least mention that not every place in the world has the same kind of distinct four seasons that Japan does. Many parts of the globe have climates that don’t lend themselves to seasons with neat beginnings and ends. When I think of a place like Los Angeles, it’s hard to see much difference between the seasons—it all just seems to run together.

But as long as we’re being honest, the idea of all of Japan having these discernible four seasons is questionable at best. Geographically, Japan’s not a huge place, but it’s large enough to have big variations in climate between different areas of the country. The tropical southern islands of Japan are unlikely to see the kind of snow that great poets write about, and the very northern tip of Japan is probably shivering from the cold as people in Tokyo get drunk at hanami.

Throw in the rainy seasons to the equation and it gums up the works. Do typhoons constitute their own season? Are there actually five, or even six seasons in Japan?

So clearly, the notion that Japan is the only place in the world with four, distinct seasons is a ludicrous idea that’s clearly and demonstrably not true; but the belief, and the theories behind them are endlessly fascinating, and might even lend some insight into other cultural phenomena.


Wallpapers and GIFs!

Want to watch the uniquely Japanese seasons turn? Our amazing artist Aya has provided us with some desktop backgrounds and animated GIFs of the header image. Enjoy!

Wallpaper (1280×800)
Wallpaper (2560×1440)

GIF (700×438)
GIF (1280×800)

  • Henro

    Exactly. The Japanese system is more standardized across the country, so this is one (of MANY) reasons that comparing Japanese schools to American schools is apples and oranges – pointless and a waste of time. )

    In fact, some of the problems of US schools (over reliance on standardized testing and overcrowding in the classroom) are actual GOALS of (some) Japanese schools.

    It turns out, if you pay thousands of dollars for your child to go to a special, private school in Japan – you can expect him to have class sizes of up to FIFTY students, and their ENTIRE curriculum aimed 100% at teaching him to pass standardized tests.

    This is just one example, but this isn’t a run-down public school I’m talking about. This is one of the most expensive private schools in the prefecture – their class size is 50 and the students do nothing but study for their tests. I’ve even been told that they don’t have labs for their chemistry classes, because it’s all book work.

    This is the IDEAL in Japan, whereas in America is the worst possible case scenario. So, yeah. If you want to compare Japanese schools to American, there just is no point: the problems we have in American schools are the stated goals that (some) Japanese schools strive for.

    Oh, and that’s not even getting into the fact that even after all the money you spend on private schools here, it STILL isn’t enough for children to get a decent education, and many students have to go to hyper-expensive cram schools until 9 or 10 o’clock at night just to be able to pass their tests. Yes, even the kids going to hyper-expensive, “elite” private schools have to go to these cram schools. Part of the reason for this is that, even if you go to a private school, a HUGE portion of your time in school is devoted to time-wasting events and festivals and other projects that take up months and months of the students’ time preparing for during school hours.

    American schools have problems, but wow, it just doesn’t compare to Japan. There is absolutely no comparison whatsoever.

  • belgand

    San Francisco largely has little in the way of seasons. They do exist, but the differences tend to be more subtle, or at least, less like the ones that most people expect. For one thing the seasonal temperature variation tends to only be about 10-15 degrees F… but that only tells part of the story. The big one is that fall/winter tend to be the rainy season and spring/summer are a dry season with little rain. It’s not an absolute, but there’s a strong tendency. The other odd change is that the real temperature often has less to do with the listed one. This is because summer is probably one of the coldest seasons. Why? Because it’s also the foggiest season. Hot temperatures inland mean that cold ocean winds get sucked across the city where they create fog. So we spend days and sometimes weeks covered with a dense bank of cold grey and with plenty of wind so the sun never gets a chance to heat the air up. Even when the weather is warmer there’s still usually a constant breeze coming off the ocean and blowing away any warm air. Crossing the street into the shade can make things noticeably cooler and once the sun goes down it gets pretty cold.

    I actually welcome not having seasons in general. They’re largely unpleasant and things should ideally just reach a perfect temperature without inclement weather (or the horrors of snow) and just stay that way. The only problem is that our temperature stays stuck at about 50-65 F year-round so it’s always cold and often pretty damp. Terrible during the summer, but at least it’s not freezing cold in the winter.

  • Admiral Awesome

    In Florida we only have two seasons, the Wet season and the dry season, and man is it boring.

  • Admiral Awesome

    The only thing that irks me with this chain quotes is the presumption that American schools are at all good. Especially since the no child left behind act, I’ve had kids back in highschool that barely knew how to read. The school system here is terrible, most States give some extremely basic standardized test to choose if you pass, where in high school you’re probably doing middle school math and reading. I’m in college now and it seems they allow anyone into Universities, because the same idiots are here. When I have children, I’d be MORE than happy to dish out money for them to study for tests all day in a private school and come out actually being respectable intelligent adults, instead of a bunch of idiots, but of course our education in the US MUST be amazing, or else we would be outsourcing all our employees, oh wait…

  • crella

    I can’t put my hand on the source, but I read that the ‘four seasons’ bit was supposedly to make Japan special within Asia, where some places have only ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ seasons. It’s simply a mistake that they apply the concept to the rest of the world.

  • Timothy Takemoto

    I am a dyed in the wool nihonjinronner and believe the Japanese to be very different from WASPS. The emphasis on seasons is all part of a bigger emphasis upon nature as sign, for emotions, family names, crests, body parts, and as explicative of culture because, rather than thinking in language, the Japanese think with things that are good to think with (bons a penser).

    However perhaps all the talk of four seasons is to hide the fact that Japan has five seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter and tsuyu, the rainy season, which no one likes.

  • Henro

    I’m not saying US education is good, I’m saying that the problems are different.

    For example, as you hinted at, basic standardized testing is one of the biggest problems in US education; here in Japan, standardized tests are the entire point, purpose and goal of education. You talk about kids who can’t even read in the US, well, we have kids in Japan who can’t even tell you what food they like, or what things make them happy, because they just don’t even know anymore. You have private schools where kids are crammed 50 to a class and never, ever ask the teacher questions.

    And I don’t think you understand what juku is. It’s a second school that students go to after regular school – it is a repetition of the same stuff they do all day, but slightly more intense. Most jukus go until 9 or 10 o’clock at night. My 11-year-old was going to juku until 9 each night for a few months before we pulled him out. So, juku isn’t just special tutoring – it’s basically a regular school classroom. So think about that: from 9AM to 9PM doing the same thing, all day – 12 hours a day, studying the same things over and over and over again. It’s not a special, better class where you pay money for your kid to get a real education – it’s just more hours of your child crammed into a small classroom doing worksheets late into the night.

    Think about that: 12 hours a day for many of these kids, with little one or two week vacations that aren’t really vacations (they still go to school every day despite being on vacation), and it’s STILL not enough??? I’m sorry, but there is just no point in comparing the two systems, because our problems are so different. In fact, Japanese school as it exists would be highly illegal in America, because it would basically be categorized as “abuse” and shut down over night.

    My point is, any time someone says something about Japan, you don’t need to jump in and start saying, “Yeah, but America!” It has NOTHING to do with anything happening here, and making comparisons is pointless.

  • Simon France

    In England we have can have all four seasons in a week…. …and the Nihonjinron are known as the English Defence League.

  • Jonathan Harston

    Additionally, what puzzles me is the cultural insistence that each season is the same length. I can’t make myself think of June as “summer”, but if June is Spring, that makes September “Summer”, which is even more absurd.