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Saturday, July 31, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Some don't like it hot


My idea of hell is to be trapped for eternity in a tiny room with two women with one-track minds. All they want to do is talk, and their sole topic is this:

The weather.

"Hot here, isn't it?" says one with a French accent. Her name is Estelle.

"But it isn't the heat, really," answers the other on cue. Her name is Inez, and there is a hint of Spanish in her voice. "It's the humidity."

Then they turn my way and for the 6 trillionth time ask: "How about you? Hot enough for ya?"

At which point I confirm that there is no exit, wrench one finger around my sweat-soaked collar and say . . . "Are you kidding? I'm from Tokyo. This is nothing!"

So . . . it has come down to this, has it? Time to take up the topic about which everybody moans, but no one ever writes columns about: the Tokyo heat.

Just how hot is it? Here's a quote from a friend from Rwanda, only an echo away from the Equator: "Compared with Tokyo, Rwanda is a seaside resort. For one thing, we have a small innovation there we call a 'breeze,' which I hope Tokyo would try to import in August."

I myself hail from the upper Midwest, an area most Japanese associate with snow, wind and Al Capone. Yet as any fellow Midwesterner will tell you, summers there sizzle. Mercury bursts from thermometers, children fry whole chickens on the sidewalk and people carry knives to hack their way through the humidity until God in his mercy rips the night apart with a crackling display of thunder, lightning and relief-bringing rain.

All in all, I would rank Illinois in August as a 9.9 on the Dillon Unbearable Heat Scale. Tokyo, however, ranks above. And not at 10. At 20.

"Tokyo in summer," explains a friend, "is like a match burning from both ends. The blinding sun scorches from above and the concrete griddle of the city boils from below. Life, if you can call it that, is what happens in-between."

In-between . . . where legions of trains, buses and cars stir the heat with the nonstop pounding of pistons and the incessant farting of exhaust. Where breathing the air is like sucking hot water. Where sweaty undies have to be peeled from the skin with paint paddles.

"It used to be worse," I remind my friend. "Japanese only discovered deodorant around 10 years ago."

Not that they needed it. Most noses here are so overwhelmed by personal perspiration that anything more than 2 feet away carries no smell at all. Sweat on other people is something seen, not sniffed. Tokyoites, in the euphemisms of the genteel South, neither glow nor glimmer. They drip.

The proper Tokyoite also maintains a heat-combating wardrobe, the essentials of which are as follows:

A small towel or hankie. . . . Folks on the go use these cloths to mop themselves. They start at the top, swab the face and neck, wring out all the water and then start again. The process begins in late June and ends in mid-September.

A fan. . . . Well-known Japanese folding fans are not souvenir items; they are vital equipment for summer survival. People fan themselves whenever they are at rest and with any available substitute. One sign of heat desperation is the sight of people fanning themselves with their train ticket -- a mighty 4 cm in length.

A hat or parasol. . . . Strictly an item for women, parasols are the summer flowers of Tokyo. They pop open when the sun comes up and snap back down at sunset. Younger women may forgo parasols as an accessory of the middle-aged, and instead step down the street holding a hankie before their eyes like a makeshift sun visor. With the other hand, they jaw into a cell phone and -- what else? -- complain about the heat.

The heat also calls out short-sleeved garments, but not in the numbers one might expect. Some businessmen continue to don long-sleeved shirts almost like a cloak of honor. The implied message is twofold: 1. Their company is really tough! And 2. Their company is really dumb.

These same men will also wear their suit jackets even in the oven of mid-August. Is it no wonder the Japanese economy has been becalmed for so many years? The business leaders may all be suffering from heatstroke.

A recent odd addition to the heat wardrobe of women is a light wrap. Women tug this out from handbags whenever entering a train or store. For -- just as outside is screaming meemies hot -- inside can be as brisk as a meat locker. The change in temperature feels great, until you realize your teeth are chattering.

One cannot help but wonder -- in this hottest city of the new millennium -- what all this unbridled air conditioning does for global warming. As businesses bring their customers too-generous respite from the heat (and thus encourage them to stay indoors and spend), might not they also be cranking up the temperature for the entire planet? Might not Tokyo be on the vanguard of ozone depletion? Might not we all be zooming straight for flaming, fiery oblivion?

Or course, I am typing this in a crispy-cool office, and if you want me to turn down the air, you're nuts. This is Tokyo and it's August. Just outside my window, birds are roasting in midflight. Remind me to worry about the environment in the fall.

The best way to beat the Tokyo heat is just that -- to beat it . . . out of here.

"Come to France!" says Estelle.

"No, Spain!" says Inez.

"But girls, girls," I shout back in my Sartre-ian vision. "Don't you remember? We're trapped in hell!"

Yet, it could be worse, they remind me. It could be Tokyo in August.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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