As a keen swimmer from another island at the opposite end of the Eurasian land mass, it has been interesting to contrast Japanese attitudes towards the sea with those of my compatriots, as well as with other countries I have visited or lived in.
More specifically, what I am talking about here is getting in the water. In my experience, many people living in coastal or island nations - even fairly cold ones like my own - enjoy swimming in and being in or on the sea. In Japan, however, this seems to apply mainly to surfers or wind surfers. When I have spoken, as I often do, about my own love of swimming in the ocean, reactions range from mild (he’s just a strange foreigner) to strong (he’s bonkers). But why is this? What accounts for the almost phobic dread many have here of getting in the briny? There are many reasons, I think, but I am certain I know one of them, and it’s a belief I find every bit as strange as some might find me.
Isn’t it cold? This is the question I am often asked when I tell people that I swim in the sea, even when I’m talking about swimming in summer. Of course, people have different ideas about what ‘cold’ is, but for me the question is still a very strange one. It is like asking a runner in the Fukuoka Marathon (held in a fairly cold month) if she is cold. She isn’t cold because she is running. I am not cold in the sea because (1) I am swimming and (2) Kyushu is hot in summer by any standards. This ‘isn’t it cold’ question says something to me about how many Japanese view the sea and why people don’t get in it. Basically, it is a permanently, unchangingly cold place, no matter what the season is or what one is doing in the water.
As I said, I think there are many reasons why relatively few people here get in the sea, even when the weather is hot. Others, in my opinion, include different ideas about modesty, a dislike of getting sunburnt (females especially), and the fact that learning to swim in a 1.5 meter deep pool (rather like learning to ride a bicycle without taking the training wheels off) is perhaps not the best preparation for swimming in the ocean.
To finish, while I’m on the topic of the sea and local beliefs about it, I’d like to put a particularly popular one to bed once and for all! Here it comes: The Jellyfish appear after Obon. If I had 10 yen for every time I have heard this, I would be a rich man. It is incredible how many people think this is true! Well, I can personally assure you all that it is not! One reason I know it is not true is that I’ve been stung by them long before August. By far the main reason, however, is that jellyfish do not know when Obon is. I am not a marine biologist, but I would bet my life on this claim being correct. Yet another reason is that for anyone who cares to look there are large numbers of jellyfish to be found in June, no more than a kilometre away from the school. And this has been true for a long time. I admit that this ‘jellyfish after Obon’ fantasy may have had some veracity in pre-industrial times, before man-made climate change, but it is not even close to being true anymore.
Anyway, that’s enough this week from an Englishman in the Sea of Japan!
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