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Friday, May 18, 2001


May is here -- someone hand me my Prozac!

Why does Golden Week come around the first week of May? Because if it didn't, there's a good chance Japan's suicide rate would be up by another 15 percent, that's why.

This is the time of year when people are seized by the gogatsubyo (May sickness), whose symptoms include manic-depression, indefinable urges, sadness without cause. For school kids, gogatsubyo sets in with the realization that the new homeroom teacher and the awful birdbrain in the next seat are here to stay for the whole year. For newly inducted salarymen, it's the sinking feeling that the new job, which they're not really thrilled about, is about to occupy 80 percent of their waking hours for the next three decades.

In a country where everything begins April 1, the month of May brings a collective delayed reaction of darusa (fatigue), moya-moya (doubts) and yarukinashi (not wanting to do anything). It's one of the rites of spring.

To assuage the pains of gogatsubyo, our ancestors invented nifty phrases and events designed for this very purpose. Witness the koinobori (raised carp streamers) sailing above rooftops in honor of Japanese boyhood; the kashiwamochi (bean-paste cakes wrapped in oak leaves) displayed at the confectioners; the gogatsuningyo (warrior dolls), which mothers take out and place atop the TV in hopes that their sons will grow to be strong, silent, dependable types.

At the flower shops, shobu (Japanese iris) leaves are sold for putting in bath water. In the fish market, the hatsugatsuo (first bonito) line the shelves, a delicacy so treasured that they used to say "Nyobo o shichini iretemo hatsugatsuo (A man must eat the first bonito of spring, even if he must pawn his wife to do so)." Which means, of course, that wives never got to eat them.

May weather is also something to be glad about: satsukibare (May's fair weather) comes around on the occasions when spring deigns to make an effort and offers the kind of perfect sky that seems to have been ironed with rosewater.

If, on the other hand, it should happen to rain (and it will), it's called samidare (May rain) and this is supposedly poetic enough to inspire the likes of haiku master Matsuo Basho (if you really want to know, the poem goes: "Gathering all the May rains/flowing fast/the Mogami River"). There's even an azalea called Satsuki (another word for May).

For all its consolations, however, May is still the cruelest month, and symbolic of that is the term satsukiyami (the darkness of May nights), said to be the blackest times of the year. So some companies have gogatsubyo therapy centers to help employees make it through the month, and acupuncturists and shiatsu clinics have special May discount menus.

Plus, May is also the month of kangeikai (welcome parties for new employees, new department bosses, etc.) where it's always possible to drown your hangups in endless reps of ikkinomi (chugging a drink in a single gulp) while colleagues clap and cheer you on, which means you get to spend the night in total, uh, upheaval.

The worst part of May is this: There is no end. May merges imperceptibly into tsuyu (the rainy season), when the skies are perpetually heavy and dark; one is forever losing and buying the biniiru gasa (plastic umbrellas sold in convenience stores); and the main female preoccupation revolves around mud splatters on the backs of legs.

The temperature falls to tsuyuzamu (rainy-season chill) levels; tatami mats grow damp under feet; and the drugstores all start to carry the shikketori zo-san (dehumidifiers in the shape of little elephants). Friday afternoon conversations will go like this: "So what are you doing this weekend?" "Killing kabi (mildew) with the Kabi-Killer detergent."

This is a warning. Get out of the country before your catch a fierce case of gogatsubyo.

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