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:
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!