Japan's 72 Microseasons - #15
"Rainbows Start To Appear"
April 15 - 19
にじ はじめて あらわる
Niji hajimete arawaru
Rainbows start to appear
If this newsletter can be said to have an overall message or theme, it would be to notice the small, overlooked, and mundane. To pay attention to gradual, minor changes in the natural environment as a way of appreciating time in a very present-focused way.
But everyone notices a rainbow.
It’s hard not to—spanning the sky after a rain and pointing to some unseen place, rainbows are one of those phenomena that different times and peoples all ascribe some kind of meaning to. They almost feel like they have to mean something.
Omen, promise, or divine message—one thing they do mean, at a meteorological level at least, is that there’s a lot of water droplets in the air. Even knowing that, though, doesn’t diminish that feeling of surprised awe as we gaze at their seemingly unchanging form fixed onto the sky. Unseen during the cold, dry winter months, the first rainbow during the longer, warmer days of spring is a welcome sight, with or without any heavenly purpose. They’re just nice to look at.
In pre-modern Japan, however, rainbows were historically a thing to avert your gaze from. Not for any fear, but reverence of something beyond human touch or influence. It was said that one shouldn’t point at them or look for too long. There was thought to be an untouchable holiness to them, although it’s important to note here that prior to the arrival of Buddhism, Japan had no omniscient pantheon of gods ruling the skies. Instead, all things were known to be imbued with their own spirit—something akin to life deserving of acknowledgement.1 These were not things to be believed in or appeased, but simply things that were.2 Would it not be naturally respectful, then, to give this grandiose, transient visitor some deferent consideration?
Of course, in the more recent history of the Koyomi and today, rainbows are merely a beautiful, unexpected sight to be enjoyed and appreciated—especially in spring, when rainbows disappear as suddenly as they arrive.
Our kanji for this kō are pretty straightforward: 虹, 始, and 見 are “rainbow,” “start,” and “see,” respectively. We have some adaptive localization happening with 見 being read as arawaru, which is written 現る and means “to appear or materialize” and is an active verb on the rainbow’s part (rather than a passive “is seen”).3 Rather than the kō overall, the character for rainbow is interesting if you read and remember Kō 7 where we talked about the kanji 虫.
See something familiar? It’s one of the radicals4 for 虹, and although in modern Japanese it most often means "insect," its origin is representative of a snake. In Chinese mythology—which of course had plenty of cultural influence on nearby Japan—rainbows were said to be giant snakes. In some cases, ones that worked (工) hard enough to reach the skies and become dragons.5
Before we wrap up I thought it’d be nice to share another 72 Kō project I found while researching this: Tokimatsu (@tokima_t) is an artist doing cute, storybook-style illustrations for this year’s microseasons, having started at the same time I did. Here’s their most recent, so if you enjoy them go give a follow!
On the writing front: if you live in North America (or are curious about viewing local climates through the microseasons lens) you should check out Microseasons by Ann Collins and NYC Microseasons by Erin Chapman & Allison C. Meier.
I wonder what the seasonal food and plants for North Carolina and New York would look like? As for Japan, here’s what Kō 15 brings:
● Seasonal vegetable
mitsuba, みつば, wild parsley
● Seasonal seafood
sakura-ebi, 桜エビ, sakura shrimp
● Seasonal tree
konara, 小楢, jolcham oak
And that’s our last kō for this sekki, which I’ve failed to introduce until now! Its name is Seimei (清明), which means “clear and bright.” Not just the name of 1/24 of the solar year, seimei as an adjective can be used to describe the sort of clear, bright blue sky in which one might see a rainbow.
So, have you seen your first rainbow of the year yet? If so, do you remember when and where you were? If not, try and keep an eye out after the rain for what comes out.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
If you’ve got a microseasons-related project somewhere, please do let me know! I’ll be sure to mention it
This spiritual system eventually coalesced into what is now called Shinto, but it was a way of encountering the world before any shrines were built or incense lit and even today doesn’t exist as a “religion” per se.
Bob Myers, in his newsletter Japanese One Word At A Time, recently wrote about concepts of “belief” in Japan.
I like to think it implies a bit of mysterious agency, a over-arching agenda, you could say
Basic Japanese kanji lesson for anyone who needs it: “radicals” are what we call the different compounds that make up a kanji character. Often (but not always) these are simpler ideographic characters combined into a more complicated one. Instead of writing a whole treatise here, I encourage interested learners to check out Tofugu’s great in-depth guide.