Cold in March, graduation in Japan, and the problem with time consciousness

Not much snow, but even seeing it crushed me

[It’s school graduation season in Japan, so I’ve been busy with stupid, ceaseless ceremony. I’m so tired and so cold, and so tired of being cold, and so tired of being cold in rural Japan. Something low effort this week then… time is criminal. As an additional note, I’ve drawn heavily from Dienstag’s neat book Pessimism: Philosophy, Spirit, Ethic]

It snowed yesterday, on March 14, a week away from the official start of spring. It all melted by the end of the work day, but when I saw about four inches (10cm) of the real heavy, wet stuff on my car in the morning, I just about cried. I’m so tired of winter in rural Japan. I want to feel warm again; spring is so close! But now, it’s still so cold.

The feeling of futile anticipation reminded me of a passage from Izumi Kyoka’s short story “One Day in Spring.” As spoken by the despairing lover Mio:

Those people you see out there working in their fields — when fall comes they brace themselves, each doing his best to not be overwhelmed by melancholy. There’s still strength in those dispirited legs. But in spring the strength is stolen away. They float up, as if they’ve been turned into butterflies or birds. They seem anxious, don’t they?

Invited by a warm, gentle wind, the soul becomes a dandelion blossom that suddenly turns into cotton and blows away. It’s the feeling of fading into death after seeing paradise with your own eyes. Knowing its pleasure, you also understand that heaven is heartless, vulnerable, unreliable, and sad.

[trans. Charles Inouye]

Let’s take the point about the seasons literally for a moment: I could bear winter without complaint as long as it seemed inescapable… clearing the thick mountain snow off my car every morning, shivering in my full winter coat during class in uninsulated rural schools, fumbling with clumsy jerry cans to refill portable heaters, de-icing the shower (…and the toothpaste…) in my unheated bathroom. It was so cold. And that was fine.

Oh, but now spring is coming! I’ve gone weeks without shoveling snow. I’ve floated through class with just a jacket! I’ve felt warm air blowing in from the sky again, instead of from a kerosene burner! I don’t even need to heat my toothpaste under the water before I can squeeze it out of the tube! I’m so close to escaping the cold!

But then winter clawed me back into its freezing hell one last time with that snow on the 14th, and then a second last time with another flurry this morning. March promises me rebirth into the paradise of spring, but that stubborn winter refuses to give up its grip and just die already. I’m impatient, anxious in anticipation, tired of winter for not going… But then I resent spring too, for not coming sooner. It’s still so cold.

The feeling extends beyond the seasons though. Along with the late snow, my middle school held its graduation ceremony yesterday. Most Japanese schools end the academic year in March so that the new semester in April can coincide with the flowering of spring cherry blossom trees to symbolize rebirth, new life, rising youth and all that poetic nonsense. But such romantic thinking cannot resolve an ancient dispute with the weather: the climate of mountainous Tohoku refuses to cooperate with the “gaman! = endure!” culture of a conservative Japanese village. The unstoppable force of a long winter meets the immovable object of stubborn ceremonialism. The result? Cold.

Despite the admirable efforts of four massive, reeking kerosene burners blasting out carbon monoxide into each corner of the gym, I shivered through the whole three-hour ordeal in my white-tie suit. The students had it worse though: an inflexible dress code forced them to wear the same formal uniforms used for summertime, with the girls especially suffering from exposed skin under their leggings-less skirts. Their tiny homeroom teacher quivered in her kimono and open-foot geta sandals. She may have just been nervous, but still: it was so cold.

The farewell ceremony was the most miserable. Everyone lined up outside to wave the school flag and wish the graduating students a final tearful goodbye before they walked home one last time across the rice paddies. Oh, but then the wind picked up. And a three-degrees-above-freezing drizzle started. And some of that drizzle came down frozen, because it was even colder in the sky. Go inside? No, no, nothing stops an established tradition here. Gaman! But it was so cold.

Thinking back on that poetic idea of a springtime graduation, I wondered if I had I witnessed the triumph of youth moving on to the next stage of their lives. Or was it instead the last revenge of a controlling education culture asking the students to endure one more needless hardship? They had already completed a battery of entrance exams and all-consuming mandatory sports clubs that demanded morning practice before class and afternoon practice before juku (cram-school). Just gaman a moment longer, the rain might let up soon! They endured, and so did I. But it was so cold.

Taking an even broader view, I think I’ve finally hit my limit for life in rural Japan. The students I grew closest to have graduated, and now I’m stuck in some lame-duck period while I wait out the end of my contract before I can return home to America in July.

But like with the transition away from winter, I am beginning to tire of what I once tolerated: the office greeting rituals and awful drinking parties with coworkers, the gossipy old ladies who snoop into my shopping habits and scold me for buying Coca-Cola, the boring bowls of plain white rice for school lunch and the dearth of variety in Japanese food in general. The sense of imminent escape only seems to heighten my discontent. I could bear the inconveniences and embarrassments of life in rural Japan as long as it seemed semi-permanent. But now that I know when I will leave, I wonder why I put up with it at all.

And then like with beginning of spring, I feel impatient for the good things that won’t come soon enough. It shows most with the language. I’ve improved my Japanese just well enough to recognize my own inadequacy in every conversation. I can comprehend what people say (especially when they assume I can’t understand and start gossiping about me). But I still struggle enough with speaking that I can’t manage an intelligent reply. By now, I know what I don’t know: I can put the grammar and words on the tip of my tongue, but just can’t say them fast enough.* Sometimes I wish that I hadn’t tried, instead coasting along like the stereotypical ignorant foreigner. Worse though, the language barrier contributes to rural loneliness: I’ve made plenty of friends and acquaintances to keep me active, but none I expect to ever call close (and in an aging village, none within 10 years of my own age…). No one is bad to me, and most are good, but only a few are warm. It’s no one’s fault; we just have nothing in common.

* (I am taking her out of context, but Mio mentions this problem in “One Day in Spring,” worrying about “wanting to say what’s in your heart but not being able to.”)

I have a whole list of petty, mundane, missed comforts too: I miss astounding diversity of foods and cultures you can find in even smallish American cities. I miss two-lane roads that don’t force me inch close to an irrigation ditch to let other cars pass. I even miss crass, complaining, confrontational people that don’t give a damn about hierarchy or social harmony and refuse to suffer in silence. Gaman! Ugh, but for how long? Most acutely in this moment, I miss the steady ambient heat of a well-insulated home with double-paned windows and central heating to contrast with this chill that never dissipates from whatever dilapidating rural shack I’m writing in right now. I’ve done gaman all winter, but it’s still so cold.

The usual Japanese solutions work for a while: you can sit under a kotatsu, slip into a winter futon, sink in the warm water of a bath. But they don’t last. You have to get up, get out, and endure the cold unaided again. And it feels worst of all during those transitions, when I leave the blankets and the bed to turn the kerosene heater on or when I step back out into the unheated bathroom where the warm water cools on my skin and I start to shiver again. I can feel warm for a few moments, but I can’t feel secure in that warmth because in the next moment, it will be cold again.

In “One Day in Spring,” Mio suffers from time consciousness. She cannot forget her lost lover in the painful past or cease dreaming up new one for the future. She makes a metaphorical analogy linking fall to the past and death, and spring to life and the future: “If fall is the sorrow of nature, then spring is the anguish of human life.” She decides that she prefers the fall, because the uncertainty of spring makes her feel “vulnerable.” To her, the momentary, present pleasures of the spring day feel as unreal as a vivid dream. Their temporal comforts might suddenly disappear, just like when her lover had given her a glimpse of happiness before leaving her to live in lonely agony after his death. “Are you filled with joy? Do you feel alive?” she asks. She answers her own question: “No, I feel sick.”

I don’t feel nearly so bad as Mio, but oh my god it’s so cold. I’m tired of the familiar winter and want a fresh spring, but that stupid pink-and-green season teases me with this awkward, snowy transition, just like the end of my contract teases me with the comforts of home. And even in this moment, I struggle to enjoy the present warmth of my kotatsu, knowing that when I publish this post, I’ll need to head back into that cold bathroom and prepare for bed. I know my frustrations with the cold and everything else result from the vice of my own impatience and inability to “live in the present” as the truism goes. But whatever. Even a paradise must be temporary. To return to Mio’s passage quoted before:

It’s the feeling of fading into death after seeing paradise with your own eyes. Knowing its pleasure, you also understand that heaven is heartless, vulnerable, unreliable, and sad.

I don’t know if I would mind the cold if I did not first know the warmth that I am missing. It becomes difficult to enjoy the present while the winter, receding out into the past, promises me relief and the spring, creeping in from the future, asks me to endure a little longer. Time is criminal. But I also have a more fundamental problem with the present:

It’s so cold.

Eight hours later… I just need to wait a little while longer.

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