Symbols of summer in Japan 日本の夏の象徴
Girls in summer yukata
Furin: symbols of summer in Japan
Discover the activities and traditions that mark summer in Japan
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. It's well known that the 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. So, what are these symbols and why?
In search of water and wind
The majority of Japanese, wanting to escape the heat, are drawn to things that evoke freshness, which have now become symbols of summer.
And it's the goldfish (kingyo in Japanese) who joyfully swims in his bowl of water, who evokes freshness and envy... Kingyo were once the prerogative of rich people and the nobility, but became more accessible to the common 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 a true element of Japanese culture. They're often decorated with goldfish or dragonflies, both symbols of summer.
Let's move on to insects, many of which live only for a single summer.
Lovers of anime or Japanese movies will of course have heard the incessant song of cicadas (semi), present throughout the hot days of the archipelago. The quintessential summer animal, its song (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 take place 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.
It's found 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.
- Read also: Surviving summer in Japan
The morning glory (asagao) invades schoolyards and gardens. All Japanese youngsters have grown this plant once in their life! It's THE flower of summer, and some people grow it on a trellis in front of their window to create shade. No wonder this flower is frequently found on summer fabrics.
From a culinary point of view kakigori, shaved ice, is the big favorite to represent the hot season. But what really symbolizes it is the classic signage that hangs in front of establishments serving this kind of refreshment. From trendy 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 delights young and old, and symbolizes one of the joys of the Japanese summer.
The essential watermelon (suika), summer fruit par excellence, is not only found at the dining table, but also 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 attempts to split it open, a bit like a piñata. The player is blindfolded and stands about 5-7 meters from the watermelon. Guided by the shouts and directions of friends, the goal is to score a direct hit. In general, the watermelon is placed on a mat so that the group can enjoy the pieces at the end!
Finally, summer is the time of holidays, and many 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.