Japan is a land of symbolism and the Japanese summer season is of no exception. Summertime in Japan contains numerous symbols whose intended meaning and significance are widely known and accepted by the country’s population. The five following unique Japanese summer traditions depicted on film are crucial symbols of a distinctly Japanese summer. Only in Japan do the warmer months taste like melt-in-the-mouth kakigori, feel like breezy robes against bare skin, look like picture perfect hanabi, sound like the cry of cicadas, and rhythmically flow like a Bon Odori festival.
1.Kakigori: More than just ice
For Japanese people, various foods symbolize summertime. However, perhaps the most ubiquitous is kakigori — shaved-ice. During the 11th century, preparation for kakigori began in winter when frozen blocks of ice retrieved from lakes were preserved, only to be delicately shaved and served with sweet fruit or tea syrups in the warmer months to Japanese aristocracy. When the availability of ice increased in the 19th century, kakigori also became accessible to the general public. Creamy as ice-cream, refreshing like sorbet, and gratifyingly smooth as soft-serve, today, the traditional Japanese sweet is readily available all-year round but most specifically during the hot and humid summer and late night summer matsuri (festivals).
In the movie adaptation of Yoshimoto Banana’s novel of the same name, There is no lid on the sea (2015), we can see an example of specialty kakigori and what a big difference it can make in a person’s life. Mari (Akiko Kikuchi), the protagonist exhausted with the hustle and bustle of the urban grind, returns to her rural hometown of Nishiizu, Shizuoka Prefecture to open a kakigori shop — her favorite childhood dessert. However, unlike commercialized kakigori, Mari dedicates her life to perfecting the art of kakigori by carefully sourcing the water and preparing the syrups from scratch by hand. Watch this film to see and indirectly flavor various kinds of handmade kakigori!
2.Matsuri, Summer festivals: A symbol of togetherness
Deriving from the verb “matsuru” (worship), Japanese matsuri (festivals) were originally held to worship the gods. With four distinctive seasons, spring matsuri hoped for good harvest, autumn matsuri gave thanks for the rice harvest, and winter matsuri commemorated the closing of one year and the start of another. Of all the seasons however, summer matsuri were, and still are, the largest and most celebrated. Largely associated with Obon: the honoring of the spirits of the dead, Japanese summer festivals are a symbol of togetherness. A matsuri takes various forms: it is usually held at a shrine or temple, or at a local neighborhood, where stores and private businesses all pitch in some cash in the name of having a fun time together. At those festivals, you will usually see people selling street food, beating taiko drums, dancing traditional dances (see below), and fighting the heat with kakigori.
While matsuri is a popular theme in many Japanese movies, one that portrays the link between local festivals and people is Kan Ishibashi’s 2016 tear-jerking drama, Jinsei no yakusoku (A Life Promise). The plot centers around successful but unhappy businessman Yuma Nakahara (Yukata Takenouchi) who travels to a small countryside town in search of forgiveness, which he eventually finds by making himself responsible for saving the town’s festival float. The film depicts, the Japanese notion of matsuri as an event for connecting people of all backgrounds and ages.
3.Hanabi and Yukata: Dressing to impress
Coming a close second to sakura (cherry blossoms), Japanese pride themselves in their world-class hanabi (fireworks), and rightly so. Dating back to 1732 when Japan was undergoing economic and social difficulties times, hanabi — which is made up of the words hana (flower) and bi (fire) — were used as a tool of positive distraction to bring hope and encouragement to the downtrodden population. To this day, for this very reason, hanabi or the hanabi matsuri (fireworks festival) has become a must-go summer tradition for most Japanese. Typically starting late July and running through the end of August, the Japanese enjoy fireworks across the country, which come in various creative shapes and colors. More than just a celebration as in many other countries, fireworks in Japan symbolize summer, hope, youth — and romance!
And when you attend a fireworks festival in Japan, you don’t just wear anything — there is a socially accepted “dress code” (no pressure, whatsoever, but yes, wear it!!) of wearing yukata. Perceived as the summer equivalent of Japan’s traditional attire, the kimono, yukata is a light piece of cloth women wear only in the hot and humid months of the Japanese summer, most commonly during summer festivals and fireworks. Derived from the words yu (bath) and katabira (under-clothing), originally yukata, made from cotton or silk, were exclusively worn by court nobles of the Heian era (794-1185) after taking a bath. Later in the Edo period (1603-1868) when public baths became a popular Japanese recreation, yukata began to be worn by the Japanese public. The general rule is the younger the individual, the brighter the fabric. So, a young child may wear a flamboyant print, a young woman, a pattern of flowers and an older woman, a humble yet elegant dark shade and print.
The perfect illustration of what hanabi (and how yukata is worn at those festivities) means to the Japanese people can be found in Masahiro Kunimoto’s heartwarming, Fireworks from the Heart (2010). Based on a true story, the film follows the fragmenting relationship of Hana (Mitsuki Tanimura), diagnosed with leukemia, and her brother, Taro (Kengo Kora), who in recent years has become a social recluse. When Hana has a relapse with her leukemia, Taro makes it his mission to reinstall her hope. This is when Taro realizes that the festival has become Hana’s physical symbol of exaltation.
4.Semi: A short, but well-lived life
In Japan, summer has not truly arrived until one hears the intense high-pitched chirping of the semi (cicadas). The insects are so connected to the summer season that almost every Japanese TV show or film set in summer are accompanied by cicada songs. Interestingly, there are over 30 different species of cicadas living in Japan. Cicadas live under the earth for most of their lives — typically three to 17 years — yet, once they emerge from “home” and are released into the air, they live typically for just about one week. Just like sakura, semi have a very fleeting life and in Japan, they symbolize a short life well lived, a dream that one chases for years, a longing one has been hiding.
©2005 Semishigure Production Committee
This transient nature of a cicadas’ life is a recurring theme in Mitsuo Kurotsuchi’s 2005 human drama, Semishigure, or The Samurai I Loved. This Edo-period romance follows the lives of a low-ranked samurai, Bunshiro (Somegoro Ichikawa) who lives a difficult life after his father is wrongfully accused of plotting against his clan and pushed into committing suicide. Throughout the years, however, the samurai thinks of his childhood sweetheart, Fuku (Yoshino Kimura), a woman he loves, and who loves him back, but the two are constantly kept away from each other due to various circumstances. Until one day, they get to confess their love for each other, many, many years later. Cicadas’ short but sweet life are mirrored in the two’s lives — and the movie makes us almost feel what’s it like to live in darkness all your life, then be set free and live to the fullest for one brief moment.
5.Bon odori: The sound of summer
To understand the Japanese summertime tradition of Bon odori, first we must discuss Obon. Every year around August 13, Japan unofficially celebrates Obon: the Japanese festival of the dead. Lasting for about four to five days, Japanese people partake in a variety of rituals to pay respects to deceased ancestors and loved ones. These include adorning the deceased’s altar with sweets, fruits, and flowers, mukabei (welcoming fires) where small bonfires are lit in front of people’s houses to help guide the spirits on their way and ohaka-mairi where families go to the cemetery to clean family graves and pray. These Obon festivities and more are concluded with Bon odori (Bon dance), a folk dance to welcome the spirits of the deceased. The dance, typically a very slow rhythmic one done to the sounds of taiko drums, is so loved and deeply rooted in Japanese culture that in recent years, Bon odori has become a major symbol of summer festivals themselves.
In Kaname Kobayashi’s 2010 film, Sayonara Natsuyasumi (“Goodbye, summer vacation”) we witness one of Japan’s biggest three Bon odori dance festivals: the Gujo Odori, a festival with over 400 years of history. In the movie it serves as a crucial summer moment that has a considerable effect on protagonist (Naoto Ogata) in his summer holidays.
As depicted in the above five films, Japanese summertime is rich with symbolism. From cuisine (kakigori), to fashion (yukata), to entertainment (hanabi), to Mother Nature (cry of semi), to religious traditions (Bon Odori), Japanese summertime is unmatched by any other. While it’s best to travel to Japan and experience all these traditions from July to late September, if you just want a sneak peak of what they are, check out the movies mentioned in this article. It’ll be enough to satisfy your curiosity until one summer you come and visit Japan!
Text by: Anisa Kazemi-Manshadi