There are so many things to say about tsuyu, Japan’s rainy season. The name itself, literally translated from kanji (梅雨) means “plum rain”. It is so called for the idea that the daily, drenching rains make for rich and juicy plums. In my area, tsuyu’s greatest agricultural importance is in rice farming, as the fresh rainwater keeps the flooded paddies filled and replenishes the aqueducts that run through our neighborhoods. All of my favorite creatures return during this season- the bats, the frogs, the house geckos and giant house spiders.
In Japan, there are quite a few symbols of tsuyu, frogs and snails taking the top spots. Young children sing the “Frog Song” (Kaeru no Uta) and make quite a number of crafts resembling katazumori, their beloved snails. Hydrangeas are in full bloom, their petals heavy with raindrops, yet another sign of the season.
The four-to-six weeks of near constant rain is an integral part of the ecosystem and agriculture of southern Japan, and is something that is celebrated, despite its inconveniences. In a country where dryers never really caught on, laundry piles up as we wait for that one fair day when we can do the wash. Mold can grow on your walls or in the shower. And then there are those days when you really, really need it to be sunny. That’s where teru-teru bouzu comes in.
Perhaps your school is going on a trip. Perhaps you have an important soccer match or baseball game. For whatever reason you need a particular day to be sunny, teru-teru bouzu is your man.
Teru-teru bouzu mystified me at first. Not being at all familiar with the custom when I first moved from Sapporo to Matsuyama, I puzzled over why all these little “ghosties” started popping up everywhere. They resembled exactly the tissue-paper Halloween decorations I’d made back in my first country. Perhaps summer’s Ghost Story season started early in these parts? I was finally enlightened in the same way I’d be enlightened about many other aspects of life in Ehime Prefecture- in the company of my little students.
Teru-teru bouzu are rain charms, usually hung in a window or entryway. They are made of anything white and gauzy, from tissues to light cloth. I once worked with a teacher who had an absolutely enormous one, made of polyester satin, that she busted out on the days before particularly important school events. It was a huge hit with the kids, naturally.
There is some disagreement on the true origins of the teru-teru bouzu tradition. While some say that the practice is an adaptation of Chinese weather charm traditions, others believe the story of the monk who promised his townspeople fair weather… only to fail and face the consequences. The story of the monk was made popular by the “Teru-teru Bouzu Song”, a children’s folk rhyme still sung today. Still others believe that the tradition is more of an ancient practice, linked to Hyoribo- a yokai (demon) who is the bringer of sunny days. Whichever is true (personally, I lean toward a combination of all of these), teru-teru bouzu now hang all over my town and others around the country.
So, the next time you need a sunny day, whip up a teru-teru bouzu to hang in the window. Even if it does rain, at least you’ll have something cute to look at!