The View from Japan
Torii Gate



Ubiquitous Umbrellas

By Tim Young

From SIF SATELLITE issue 50 Summer 1998

Planning to visit Japan? Be sure to bring an umbrella. After arriving in Japan, I used mine within the first week. Umbrellas are an integral part of living in Japan, with most public places providing accommodations for them on rainy days. Umbrellas are as ubiquitous here as--well, rain!umbrella

Tokyo's spring tends to be wet, following the gloriously dry, sunny late autumn and early winter months. In early to mid-June comes the inevitable announcement from the meteorological agency of the official start of the rainy season. They determine this by noting the arrival of a seasonal weather front. This usually means that it will rain nearly every day, although in some years the rainy season will nonetheless be hot with little rain. Dry rainy seasons are a problem, because Japanese water management policies assume average rainfall (100 to 250 cm per year); one or two relatively dry summers will prompt warnings to save water, and news reports on how this or that reservoir is precariously low.

Umbrellas in Japan come in all shapes and sizes, from the huge canopy-size ones with wooden handles, to the smaller fold-up ones that will fit in a bag or briefcase (I never leave home without it; you never know when it's going to turn wet outside); from the drab blue or black umbrellas used by the average businessman, to the cute, brightly colored ones like my kids have, adorned with teddy bears or popular cartoon characters like Sailor Moon. Clear vinyl umbrellas with cheap aluminum frames and white plastic handles are commonly seen crumpled by the roadside, bought by someone caught in a downpour, and discarded after being turned inside-out by a strong gust of wind.

Umbrellas present a problem when navigating Japan's narrow sidewalks and passageways, which are often only about one umbrella-width wide. The etiquette here when approaching a fellow umbrella-user is for one to hold his umbrella high in the air, so that the other umbrella will pass safely under it without a collision. Occasionally, however, both of us will hold our umbrellas up, and the collision we meant to avoid occurs anyway--just higher above our heads.

Another problem is dealing with dripping wet umbrellas after you get indoors. Many businesses and other public places have large umbrella racks in their entryways. These are fine, except it can sometimes be hard to locate yours in a sea of curved handles and various colors of vinyl. This is especially true if you use the collapsible kind like mine, which tend to fall over within the rack and be buried by other umbrellas. While I've never had an umbrella stolen, I have seen racks that allow you to snap a lock shut around the neck of your umbrella and carry the key with you until you need to go back outside. Perhaps this is meant less to prevent intentional theft than cases of mistaken identity--i.e., accidentally walking away with someone else's umbrella that looks similar to your own--of which, alas, I too am guilty. (Fortunately, that umbrella belonged to someone I knew, who then used mine until we were able to stage a prisoner exchange a few days later.)

Other shops have a rack of long, thin plastic bags in which to insert your umbrella before carrying it with you into the shop. While this eliminates the problem of fishing through a bin to find your umbrella, I dislike this system on environmental grounds, because of all the garbage it creates--every rainy day, millions of these bags are used once and thrown away. I like to take a used one from the trash can next to the rack, so I can at least say I'm not adding to the production of garbage. Japanese who see me do this, though, usually think it's due to a lack of understanding and try to "correct" me by showing me how to take a fresh, unused bag from the rack.

And how do you deal with a wet umbrella on the train? I don't want to fold it up wet and put it back in my bag. A wet umbrella on the overhead rack will cause a localized shower for the people in the seats below. Sometimes I stick it under my arm, conceding a wet shirt, and trying not to poke anyone behind me with the handle. If you have a regular curved-handle umbrella and are lucky enough to get a seat by the door, you can hang the umbrella over the bar next to you. The problem then is remembering to pick it up when you get off the train! The forgotten umbrella by the door is a common sight on trains on rainy days. Not surprisingly, a Japan Railways spokesman confirms, umbrellas are the items most commonly left behind on trains by Japanese commuters.

In my home state of Iowa, umbrellas are much less commonly used. This is due partially to the lack of necessity of walking very far. While most Tokyoites spend a fair amount of time walking to and from train stations and bus stops, the average Iowan need only make it to and from her car. In a downpour, rather than drag out the umbrellas, we'd rather simply "make a run for it."

Another factor is the rain itself. When my family and I visited Iowa recently, it rained twice; both were heavy downpours that lasted for less than one hour. This is pretty typical of Iowa rain. Unless you're in a big hurry to go somewhere, you're probably better off simply to wait till the rain stops and then go outside. In Tokyo, however, waiting for it to stop is seldom a very successful strategy; you might have to stay inside for a day or two! Japanese rains tend to be long, mild, soaking rains, that stop and start or come down steadily for hours and hours.

On the heels of the rainy season comes the typhoon season. Then the rain comes in huge cyclones (given numbers by the Japanese and human names by the US military) that swirl dramatically across the weather map, drenching everything in their path and sometimes causing considerable damage. Rain that comes off the edge of a typhoon is just your basic rain, but when a typhoon hits your area head-on, umbrellas are next to useless. As newlyweds on the first night in our own apartment, Chieko and I trekked out into a typhoon to buy some supper at a convenience store, hanging on to our umbrellas with both hands to shield ourselves from the wind and pouring rain. Upon reaching the store, we had to wonder whether it had been worth the effort to even carry umbrellas; we were both soaked. Only my hair and one shirt sleeve were dry.

I always find it interesting that Japanese use umbrellas in the snow. Iowa has much more snow than Tokyo, but you'll never see an umbrella used in the winter there. Snow can just be brushed off our coats when we reach our destination. I can see the merits of using an umbrella in snow, especially since Tokyo snow tends to be very wet; still, on the rare occasions when it snows here, the umbrellas always surprise me.

While I might not use an umbrella in the winter, it looks like I'll be using it a lot this summer. As I write this, there has barely been a day since the start of the rainy season June 2 when it hasn't rained. So don't forget to pack your umbrella.

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Copyright 2003 This page last updated November 1, 2002 . E-mail Tim