Potsu Potsu: Rain in the Summertime

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The hesitant, almost diffident cry of the first cicadas of summer reminds us that the rainy season in Japan is ending. All we need to do is gaman, or “hang in there,” and summer in all of its glory will finally be here. In the meantime, friends, listen…

In Japanese, jime-jime is that unpleasant, sticky feeling during the rainy season when the humidity has got its clammy hands all over you; mushi-mushi when it damn near smothers you.

To the Japanese ear, potan is the sound of a drop of water plopping into, say, a bucket; pota-pota, the tune a leaky faucet sings; and jah-jah, water gushing out of a pipe.

The Japanese will hear potsu-potsu as raindrops start falling upon dry ground; shito-shito when it drizzles; and zah-zah when it pours.

Strong winds howl with a byoo-byoo or a gou-gou making the windows of your apartment gata-gata (rattle). And, thunder, when stirred awake by the pika-pika of lightning, will loudly goro-goro (rumble).

While nuru-nuru describes the slimy feel every surface has when it’s been balmy for days on end, beta-beta or beto-beto is how your sweaty skin feels on uncomfortably jime-jime days. You’re dripping with sweat if you’re dara-dara; drenched to the skin if you’re bisho-bisho or gusho-gusho.

The Japanese will hear ‘potsu-potsu’ as raindrops start falling upon dry ground; ‘shito-shito’ when it drizzles; and’ zah-zah’ when it pours.

Folks refer to konuka ame (a light mist) and kirisame or saiu if it’s a light drizzle. On the other hand, in the summer you can often get caught in a niwaka ame (sudden shower), a doshaburi (downpour) and o-ame (torrential rain). A gouu — like that we just experienced in Kyushu — is a concentrated torrential downpour. In that one, reports said that a month-and-a-half worth of rain fell on the city of Asakura, Fukuoka in less than 24 hours. No wonder, then, that the flooding — or in Japanese: suigai, kouzui, oumizu, kansui or hanran — was so destructive.

I hope you’re not confused already because this is not even a potan in the bucket. The Eskimos may have fifty words for “snow,” but there are a whopping 1,190 rain-related words and phrases in the Japanese language.

The most peculiar one by far has got to be the phrase used to describe a sudden downpour out of an otherwise cloudless sky: kitsune no yome-iri (literally, “the fox takes a bride”). The kitsune, or fox, occupies a special place in the folklore and superstitions of the Japanese people. They are said to possess magical abilities, one of which is the ability to assume human form. Statues of foxes can be seen at Inari shrines, where they act as messengers for Inari Okami, the Shinto god of fertility and farming. In ancient times, people believed that whenever rain fell from clear blue skies, a wedding between foxes was taking place. This folklore was captured in Katsushika Hokusai’s famous ukiyo-e print of the same name.

One more! Although yudachi, which literally translated means “evening stand,” refers to a late afternoon summer shower, you shouldn’t assume that asadachi means an early morning shower. Far from it, friends, the asadachi refers to very different kind of morning stand — yet another blessing from nature.

And so, if you prick up your ears, I promise you will soon hear that harbinger of summer emanating from the trees: miiin min min min min miii.

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Hakata-based American writer, translator and student of Japanese dialects and literature.

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  • Chiara Taverna says:

    When I was a kid, my grandparents used to say “the fox and the wolf are getting married” when it rained on an apparentely sunny day. That happened in Sicily. It’s amazing to know that there’s a similar saying in Japan!

    • AonghasCrowe says:

      While the phrase kitsune no yome-iri generally refers a downpour in the sunshine throughout Japan, it can, according to Mr. Wiki, signify different meteorological phenomenon in some areas of the country. In Kumamoto, for example, it refers to the appearance of a rainbow, and in Aichi, the phrase relates to fog.

      More from Mr. Wiki:

      ▪ In South African English, a sunshower is referred to as a “monkey’s wedding”, a loan translation of the Zulu umshado wezinkawu, a wedding for monkeys. In Afrikaans, it is referred to as jakkalstrou, jackals wedding, or also Jakkals trou met wolf se vrou as dit reën en die son skyn flou, meaning: “Jackal marries Wolf’s wife when it rains and the sun shines faintly.”
      ▪ In Hindi, it is also called “the jackal’s wedding”.
      ▪ In Konkani, it is called “a monkey’s wedding”.
      ▪ In Sinhala, it is called “the jackal’s wedding”.
      ▪ In Bengali, it is called “a devil’s wedding”.
      ▪ In Arabic, the term is “the rats are getting married”.
      ▪ In Korea, a male tiger gets married to a fox.
      ▪ In Eritrea, the traditional belief is that the hyena is giving birth.
      ▪ In various African languages, leopards are getting married.
      ▪ In Kenya, hyenas are getting married.
      ▪ One animal, the fox, crops up all over the world, from Kerala to Japan (Japan also refers to it as ‘Kitsune (the fox) takes a bride’) to Armenia; there’s even an English dialect term, “the foxes’ wedding”, known from the south west of England. In Calabria, Italy, it is said: “When it rains with sun, the foxes are getting married.” In Finland, it is said “the foxes take their bath”.
      ▪ In Bulgaria, there is a saying about the bear marrying.
      ▪ In Tamil Nadu, South India, the Tamil speaking people say that the fox and the crow/raven are getting married.
      ▪ In Mazandarani language, in north of Iran, it is also called “the jackal’s wedding”.
      ▪ In parts of the United Kingdom, it is referred to as “a monkey’s birthday”.
      ▪ In Pashto, it is also called “Da gidarh wade” or “the jackal’s wedding”.
      ▪ In Hawaii, it is known as “Ghost Rain”.

      In America, there are words for the phenomenon, too. See “the devil is beating his wife”.

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