Of Place and Wind 2: The blessings of the rain

Tetsuya Kaida marvels at the beauty of rain and everyday life.

Speaking of water, warm or cold, makes me want to write about rain in Japan. As a matter of fact, I like rain, particularly Japanese rain.

- The sound of rain on holiday mornings has a calming effect on my mind as it wavers back and forth between dream and reality.
- Rain falling on my cheeks as I sit in the open air bath connects my life with the larger soul of nature.
- When I jog in light rain, the sound of the drops falling on grasses and leaves cleanses my body.
- Watching how the rain moistens the patio of my favorite café boosts the flavors that reach my heart.
- On late night drives, the rain trickling across the moon roof carves beautiful patterns over the day’s memories.

I can picture countless other scenes in which rain is present. Some of the readers may have different feelings about rain. I have friends and acquaintances who even hate it.

The Japanese language has many words for rain, reflecting the season and the moment of the day when it falls: harusame, the spring rain that seems to invite you to take a walk and get wet; samidare, the rains of May that swell the rivers; tsuyu, the rainy season that colors the hydrangeas; kirisame, the drizzle that half hides the things you want to see; yūdachi, the evening shower that makes the aromas of the earth rise in the air. Right now, Japan is in the season when rains are starting to turn into snow. ‘Late in the night, the rain will become snow… You don’t come and I’m all by myself…’ So go the lyrics of a very famous J-pop song.

Although rain is a little melancholy, it allows you to sense for a moment the tranquility and beauty of the soul.

It wets the mountains and the fields, trees and grasses, giving them a different expression. Like an orchestra of nature, it taps multiple sounds and rhythms that keep flowing into one another in a continuous stream of change. Reflecting the human heart. And, all of a sudden, you realize that your heart has been washed clean and you have been overtaken by a sense of wonder.

That’s the way it goes. When I write about rain, I tend to sound a little poetic. But such poetic language is testimony to the myriad of visible and invisible influences that rain has exerted upon the Japanese soul, nurturing the seeds of creativity in the most diverse fields. These influences are manifest in music, art, architecture, as well as the tea ceremony, ikebana, decorum, or fashion and the food culture. In technology, they can be found in the choice of materials and the way they are processed, in their quality and durability, in the combination of increased comfort and affective value which they acquire in time, or in the broad variety of repair techniques.

Rain conjures snapshots of everyday life: kimonos and umbrellas, traditional footwear, demeanor, foot movements, gestures. At a more abstract level, it evokes aesthetic concepts such as fūryū – a decorative sensitivity transcending the conventional, which fuses natural and artificial elements, or iki – a type of urban, sensual sophistication associated with life in the city of Edo (pre-Tokyo).

Traditional Japanese houses often have small enclosed gardens or indoor gardens. Of course, as multi-family complexes and Western-style housing are growing in popularity, such gardens are becoming increasingly rare. Not having one at home, I can only enjoy them at cafes, public baths or special restaurants. A mysterious atmosphere lingers in the air when rain falls on these gardens. By inserting a fragment of nature into the space of daily life, they might play a role in establishing a sort of ‘energy flow’, mediating between human and natural processes and sustaining the order of things. You never know.

But enough of poetic musings. Let us explore the influences of rain from another angle.

To make the discussion more relevant to our present times, we can mention, for instance, the frenetic pace of product development in the washing machine market. It is no longer a problem if rain keeps pouring for days. Innovative technologies give new life to your laundry, leaving it velvety and soft to the touch. They prevent unpleasant smells from settling in the laundry when it is dried inside the room, producing instead a sterilizing effect. The clothes maintain their anti-bacterial and anti-allergenic properties for some time after being washed. To achieve this, the washing machine is packed with technologies using ultrafine particles at the nano and pico levels, as well as with technologies for humidification and moisture retention, ionization and sensing, which are far beyond the explanatory reach of an amateur like me.

Staying with the washing machine example, technological improvements are constantly being introduced to enhance cleaning power, reduce noise, control vibration, prevent mildew, sterilize, deodorize, save time, energy and water, recycle heat, protect the textiles, smooth out wrinkles, take up less space and, in general, to upgrade all imaginable functions. And yet, there is no undermining of the housewife-friendly designs, easy-to-use operation panels and voice guidance.

Once again, I cannot help asking myself what lies at the root of Japan’s vertiginous technological advance. And I guess I know the answer. The driving force is to be found in the existence of the ‘sensitive mother’, the ‘caring wife’, the ‘demanding housewife’, the ‘busy bride’ – all of them women who also crave for a life of elegance and beauty. As long as the maternal, nurturing spirit of Japanese women prevails, the fridges, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, air conditioners and microwave ovens will keep evolving.

If we look at the world market, Japanese home appliance makers are already starting to lag behind foreign companies such as Korea’s Samsung and China’s Haier. But I see the situation in a slightly different light. I believe that Japanese makers might actually be fighting the battle in a different temporal dimension – that of the future a few years from now. Japan’s cutting edge otaku market is characterized by a thirst for innovation and pioneering new territories that cannot be explained merely as competition for a share of the world market.

The Japanese women who walk this cutting edge of technology are also faced with one more rainy day dilemma: how to best fix rebellious hair in high humidity. I do not know whether the hair of Japanese women has a texture that is particularly sensitive to rain, but the fact is that keeping hair styles under control on rainy days seems to pose major challenges. While the severity of the issue varies considerably among individuals, it is not uncommon to find women who would rather not go out in the rain at all if they had the choice. To satisfy female consumer demands, new electrical hairstyling appliances and cosmetic hair products are being developed at unprecedented speed.

I would like to express my thanks here to Japanese women, who remain at the forefront of technology no matter how rainy or windy the day. And to congratulate them on the excellent job they do on rainy days, with both laundry and hairstyles.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)

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