Last week I walked to school in tennis shoes for the first time since early December on account of warming temperatures.  The next day we woke up to nearly half a foot of snow on the ground.  The snow melted away quickly the next day and then over the weekend we experienced a cold blast of wind mixed with a little more snow.  Now it’s warm again.  In fact, on her way to work this morning, Julie saw between thirty to forty swans flying Northwest and most likely beginning their seasonal migration back to Siberia.

All of that fluctuation may sound strange, but it’s actually normal weather for Aomori during the month of March.  In fact there’s an expression that describes this seasonal phenomenon:  sankan-shion.  When translated literally, the expression means “three days of warmth, four days of cold.”  This particular interpretation comes from China and is used to describe that country’s own peculiar weather patterns in between the seasons of winter and spring.

According to my coworkers, at some point Japan borrowed the expression but changed the interpretation to “one day of cold followed by one day of warmth, repeated three times, and on the fourth day it will stay warm.”  From what I’ve seen and heard, the expression seems to be more or less accurate (not the specific number of days, just the oscillation within a short stretch of time).

Japan’s weather is very predictable.  When we asked a coworker about when we should have snow tires put onto our car in late October the response was, “Well, it will snow for the first time sometime between November 22nd and 24th so maybe the week before that.”  Sure enough, we saw snow for the first time within the specified time frame.  Also, as we’ve probably mentioned before, the seasons here are very distinct.  Summer, even up here in Aomori, is hot and humid.  So hot, in fact, that people often go swimming in the ocean at a beach on the Northern edge of town.  Then, practically overnight, the temperature drops and the leaves of deciduous trees explode in color.  Of course our experiences working and relaxing in winter have been well documented.  This year we received well over a meter of snow which was actually less than the average annual amount.

I’m a firm believer that landscape influences more than individual emotions; over time it effects how we think and process information.  Although it’s certainly not the sole reason, I believe Japan’s admiration for formality and predictability is linked to the predictable weather patterns and dramatic changes in season.

Take, for instance, the month of March.  We’ve already established that March is a transitional month between winter and spring.  However it’s transitional for teachers and students as well.  High school, junior high, and elementary school graduations all take place in March.  At the end of the month schools across the country will conduct their end of the year ceremonies.  Students will be given a brief holiday and return to school in spring, a seasonal of growth and renewal.

March is a time of saying “hello” and “good bye.”  For the students it’s not uncommon to have to say “good bye” to old friends who won’t be attending the same high school or university.  However, teachers have to say “good bye” to each other, too.  In Japan teachers teach at the same school between three to five years before being transferred to a new location.  It’s their way of preventing complacency and corruption in the work place.  At the end of the month I will probably have to bid farewell to three to five of my colleagues and of course welcome three to five new ones who will take their places in April.

Soon after, the cherry blossoms will finally bloom.  We’ll celebrate briefly and then it’s back to work.


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One Response to “Sankan-shion”

  1. paul silveira Says:

    Thanks for letting us read your thoughts on Japan. We want to come visit you. Can we stay with you, use your car and also feed us and maybe even babysit our children? Oh well, hurry home okay? Sandy

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