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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

BILINGUAL

Pass the pills to get me through spring's upheavals


Most things go through upheaval in spring, especially so in Japan.

For one thing, people don't get as much sleep. First, there are the nendomatsu (year's end) obligations in March that triple the normal workload, especially for bureaucrats scrambling to meet the deadline for the section's budget or closing and renewing projects with clients.

Then there's the sobetsukai (farewell parties), thrown for those leaving their current posts and moving on to others; there's also ohanami (cherry-blossom viewing or, to put it bluntly, sitting under cherry trees on blue tarpaulin sheets and drinking oneself into oblivion); and finally the various kansogeikai (welcoming new employees and respectfully ushering out retirees and/or those leaving the workplace) that fill up the social calendar well into the second week of April.

It's no coincidence that during this time, commercials on television and billboards endorse ichoyaku (stomach pills) in a big way. The trick, it seems, is to swallow the medication before all the cholesterol and alcohol does the old one-two damage to the fragile Japanese intestinal systems.

Not that this so-called fragility has ever kept people from swilling their beer by the pitcher. Talk about upheaval (read: regurgitation).

Interestingly, many Japanese profess to have a secret dislike of spring. And why not? The season is unreliable in terms of weather, what with its days of wind, rain and even sleet.

The pile-up of nendomatsu activities and social obligations often leaves nerves in tatters and bodies drained of energy. Those unfortunate enough to be struck by kafunsho (hay fever) have that additional irritation to worry about, not to mention the mental stress over jinjiido (literally, personnel movement, or in-house transfers).

The business of ido holds more sway over lives than destiny itself, for it determines whether a person will get the ax (the euphemistic phrase for it is risutora, a Japanese abbreviation of restructuring); leave his family for tanshinfunin (going off solo to fill a slot in one of the company's branch locations); become a madogiwazoku (filling a seat next to the window, i.e., getting moved to a boring nonjob with nothing to do) or other dire possibilities.

Of course, there's always the opposite scenario: eiten (promotion) to some glamorous post, preferably overseas to the United States or Europe. But the intricacies of jinji (personnel matters) are such that what first began as an eiten turns out to be a sasen (literally, a left turning, or demotion) in disguise.

No wonder we need those stomach pills.

As for sakura (cherry blossoms), historically the flower has always held connotations of suicide and death, reminding us of the brevity of youth, the inherent unreliability of virtue and the soon-to-be downtrodden blossom petals scattered on cold, hard ground. Though this may be hard to believe (and grossly unpatriotic), some Japanese will admit to hating these flowers altogether.

Among them is novelist Mari Mori (1903-87), daughter of the celebrated Meiji Period intellectual Mori Ogai. In one of her essays published postwar, Mari wrote that sakura had an unbearable tackiness about them, stirring up too much sentiment and adding unnecessary clamor and chaos to an already busy season.

"The only correct way to view sakura," she wrote, "is to stay at home and cook something nice and think fondly but disdainfully of all the mess people are making under the trees. There's really no need to go out and actually look at those cheap blossoms."

Late 10th century female poet Sei Shonagon, the culture and fashion commentator of her time whose words and values endure to this day, wrote of how dawn was the best time of a spring day ("haru wa akebono"), and how one should rise early to observe the sun gradually lighting up the mountain contours. Tellingly, she makes very little allusion to cherry blossoms.

Perhaps she too was a member of the anti-sakura clique, which, if it is true, would be a great morale booster to those of us who would rather stay at home and sleep away the spring blues -- if we could get time off work, that is. "Shunmin akatsuki o oboezu (spring sleep knows no morning)" goes an old and familiar phrase and the prospect is often much too seductive to resist.

At least we have the comfort of looking forward to Golden Week (this year April 29-May 5). This recovery period from those concentrated weeks of haru no gekido, or spring upheaval, cannot come soon enough after the melodramatic and chaotic months of March and April.

E-mail comments to bilingual@japantimes.co.jp


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