When the weather changes, so does your life.
In my university days, an exasperated Japanese teacher came in to greet my dripping-wet class. He asked why we were wet. “Oh that’s right. Because Americans never use a f–king umbrella.”
It’s true. Americans don’t use a f–king umbrella, because we can wear rain coats and walk to a car. It’s rainy season in Japan, and because I’ve swapped cars for legs and trains, I’ve found that rain coats become miserable bags of hot sweat. An umbrella is more comfortable than a jacket.
Since I’ve come to rely on umbrellas, I’ve been thinking about my connections to nature and people and fate.
Mi Kasa es tu Kasa
Umbrellas are so old that the Japanese character for umbrella (kasa) is a picture of an umbrella (傘). That puts it up there with rice fields (田) and eyeballs (目) in terms of direct visual representation.
From a very uneducated look at the kanji, I note that they are similar to the symbol for the stereotypical wicker hat (笠) worn by rice farmers. I like to think that some genius put a hat on a pole to break down Asian stereotypes, inventing the umbrella.
Japan has its own style of umbrella – wagasa, crafted in Gifu, which used to be a big deal. It’s a kind of parasol made of paper and bamboo. It looks less like a rice farmer’s hat and more like it would sit at the side of an enormous blue-raspberry daiquiri in Okinawa.
Samurai would make them in the 18th century – the umbrellas, not the daiquiris – because lots of Samurai were out of work those days. Wagasa block out the rain, but they also block out the sun, and now they’re mostly associated with dignified ladies avoiding suntans.
The most prevalent umbrella, though, is the plastic see-through umbrella. You can use it while riding your bike, albeit illegally. It was invented in 1959 and was a major part of Japan’s swinging go-go fashion scene in the ’60s, a scene that mostly didn’t exist until being romanticized and emulated by the Shibuya-kei kids in the ’90s.
Five Umbrella Dramas
If you’re forced to endure nature, as I’ve come to be in Japan, the weather changes your life. It’s not distinctly Japanese, but Shinto has elevated Japan’s sense of submission to nature – if it rains, it rains. Get wet and get over it.
The umbrella is a tiny concession to comfort in the face of fate, and relying on umbrellas sets off a whole chain of tiny dramas about desire and presence and connections and being rained on.
1. You Were Born Without an Umbrella
Umbrellas are never really stolen. They’re paid for with a tiny story I get to tell. I’ll go to a bar and say, “My umbrella got stolen.” I might get a free drink out of it. The stolen-umbrella ritual of expat bonding helps me see who my friends are. “That sucks,” they’ll say. I don’t talk about it too much, though. As with every expat conversation, it gets awkward if either of us carries on.
Umbrellas in Japan come and go. I start most days without one, find one along the way, and inevitably come home empty handed. Unlike everything else, though, I never feel entitled to an umbrella.
2. A Voyage of Self-Discovery
I left an umbrella at the konbini and went back for it once. The women had taken the umbrella rack away. I asked if they saw my umbrella. The conversation was exclusively in Japanese, but went like this:
“Yes,” she said, and stared at me.
“Can I have my umbrella?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Help yourself.” She stared at me.
“My umbrella. I forgot it here. Did you see MY umbrella?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Your umbrella. We have it.”
“Can I have it?”
“Yes. Help yourself!”
“OK. Sorry about this.”
I lost an umbrella, but gained a realization: I don’t speak Japanese very well.
3. Surviving Desire
Sometimes I make a rational decision to leave an umbrella behind. I’ve abandoned an umbrella after a couple of drinks for a night of unburdened dancing. It’s not an easy decision. It’s like breaking up with the umbrella. It’s not you, it’s me. You were great, but the sky cleared up. What more can we do together?
You can have a perfect umbrella drama: You forget it, then return after the rain-soaked realization that you need it. When you come back, you found someone else had taken it home.
It’s never really your umbrella, not until you lose it.
4. The One-Night Umbrella Stand
I stole an umbrella once. It’s a dirty feeling. I saw an umbrella on a wet night and I was a little drunk and I knew I wanted it more than the other guy did. I stared at the umbrella and convinced myself that taking it wasn’t so bad because I’d appreciate it more.
The umbrella leaned against the wall, handle cocked sideways, and winked. I got home dry but the umbrella didn’t stick around for long. It ended up disappearing in the arms of a business man outside of a konbini.
If you need an umbrella, it doesn’t mean the umbrella needs you.
5. Ombrelle de Jouissance.
If it’s windy I use an umbrella, even when I know that it’s going to break. I never care when this happens. I am heartless. No one ever thinks, “I like this umbrella. I’ll protect it from this storm.” I take it out and hold it sideways to stop horizontal rain. When it breaks, I toss it aside and brave the wind alone, then wish I had an umbrella the next time it rains.
To needlessly paraphrase Lacan, it’s our own ego that we love in an umbrella. An umbrella makes our imaginary world seem real, at least until the umbrella breaks.
In other words, you might imagine that an umbrella can stop a typhoon, but it won’t.
Unless you get a really sturdy one at a upscale department store for like 6,000 yen. But no one ever buys that umbrella, do they? I’d hate to actually have my fantasy umbrella, because I’d constantly be panicking about losing it.
The Ghost of Genki Nihongo Vol. 1
Though I don’t always have an umbrella, as a foreigner it’s my privilege to get stuck in the rain without being embarrassed. I get stared at, and that exasperated Japanese teacher’s voice echoes through my head: “Why don’t Americans use a f–king umbrella?”
The Japanese see the weather like I see the creepy guys sweating all over each other at a bar – large, inescapable and ambivalent to anyone else’s comfort. But mostly, inevitable.
I’m not in the habit of having weather change my life or my plans. I was raised invincible. If it rains, arm yourself in camping gear for a ten second walk to the car. If it’s hot, crank the air conditioner. If it’s cold, crank the thermostat. Immunize!
But something feels more fateful, almost magical, about having the course of my day dictated by the sky. Things tend to feel like destiny, like the Gods have intervened. I give myself the comfort of an umbrella, I hand my life to clouds. Whatever it gives me, I can’t complain.
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