Sea, sun, and sand… For many, these represent summer, not so in Japan. Instead, it’s wind chimes, dragonflies, goldfish, and watermelon that evoke summer for the Japanese. Japanese appreciate the different seasons, and clothing, interior decoration, various accessories, and more each have their seasonal patterns. In summer, you’ll often see yukata, fans, and other summer accessories adorned with illustrations symbolizing the Japanese summer.
In search of water and wind
Japanese, by attempting to escape the heat are drawn to things that evoke freshness, becoming symbols of summer. And it’s the goldfish (kingyo in Japanese) who joyfully swims in his bowl of water, which evokes freshness and envy… Kingyo was once the prerogative of rich people and the nobility but became more accessible to ordinary people during the late Edo period (1603-1868). This colorful little fish has quickly become a decorative element, often printed on children’s yukata, for example.
And then there’s the furin, Japanese wind chime that hangs in windows or under the canopies of traditional houses in summer. Its light tinkling sound gives the Japanese a feeling of freshness and invites relaxation. More than an accessory, it’s an actual element of Japanese culture. Decorated with goldfish or dragonflies, both symbols of summer. Let’s move on to insects, many of which live only for a single summer.
Of course, lovers of anime or Japanese movies will have heard the incessant song of cicadas (semi), present throughout the hot days of the archipelago. The quintessential summer animal, its music (or rather songs, since there are thirty kinds of cicada in Japan) both annoys and delights the Japanese population, but it’s unavoidable.
It’s not a Japanese summer without cicadas! It’s, therefore, quite natural, even necessary, to have them sing in films where the scenes occur in summer. Much more discreet but no less symbolic, the dragonfly (tonbo) also evokes the beautiful season. A symbol of courage and victory in samurai times, it has become a decorative element very present in summer. You can find it on yukata or kimono, fans, and other accessories. The fact that it lives near the water, again, evokes freshness, so it’s popular during this season.
The morning glory (asagao) invades schoolyards and gardens. All Japanese youngsters have grown this plant once in their life! Flower of summer that grows on a trellis in front of their windows to create shade—no wonder this flower is frequently found on summer fabrics.
From a culinary perspective, kakigori, shaved ice, is the big favorite to represent the hot season. You can find the classic signage that hangs in front of establishments serving this kind of refreshment. From cafes to bars on the beach, all sport a small white flag decorated with blue waves, in the middle of which the Japanese character for ice: kori, is inscribed in red. The sight of this little flag is easily recognized by young and old. And symbolizes one of the joys of the Japanese summer.
Watermelon (suika), summer fruit par excellence, is found at the dining table and on the beach! And not only in the form of cute inflatables or beach accessories. No – you’ll see it whole, ready for a particular summer game that’s only practiced on the beach (or sometimes in schoolyards): suika-wari.
With a name literally meaning “watermelon splitting,” the game consists of hitting a watermelon using a big stick or a baseball bat in an attempt to split it open, a bit like a piñata. Guided by the shouts and directions of friends. The goal is to score a direct hit so that the group can enjoy the pieces at the end!
Summertime is the time of holidays, matsuri and hanabi displays are held to raise spirits during this season of oppressive heat. While they don’t evoke freshness, they still symbolize the summer season, and colorful bursts of fireworks are found decorating many yukata worn at festivals during the hot summer nights.