How can culture empower my climate change survival? A reflection on seasonality, disasters, and a handwritten letter.

In April, I wrote a letter in Japanese to a friend who left the United States to further their spiritual studies in Japan. They informed me that this program would begin with a year of studying Japanese language and culture. I wished for them to do well, so I sent them off with a handwritten letter in Japanese as a way to jumpstart their studies. 

My parents enrolled me in a Japanese language school since preschool. I grew up with the privilege of attending a Japanese language school alongside my regular studies in the Californian public school system, which is largely why I feel confident in writing in Japanese (even if I heavily rely on online dictionaries). As an adult, I treasure this skill greatly, but as a child I often dreaded spending my Saturdays at school. As a shin-nisei/gosei kid, I felt I did not fit in with my classmates who were more engaged and fluent in Japanese than I was. However, I look back at this experience with a lot of gratitude for the structure the Japanese language school provided for my learning in my adult life. The teachers designed the curriculum so that students could return to Japan and acclimate to the school curriculum smoothly, while also making sure they learned cultural practices and etiquette. This was overwhelming for me, a kid who just wanted to be able to speak Japanese with family and enjoy Japanese TV shows.

There were, however, a handful of events and activities I loved from Japanese school. Undoukai, a sports day full of athletic and team-building competitions, gave me the opportunity to showcase my non-academic skills that were pillars of my self-confidence during this time.  Another impactful activity I did as a young child was writing a letter to my grandmother in Japanese for Keiro No Hi, a day in Japan where we appreciate grandparents and elders in our community. My grandmother used to dedicatedly drive me to Japanese school after American school when I used to attend a weekday Japanese school. This car ride of snacks and chats was a much needed break between my schooling. This is why I felt very particular about learning more about Keiro No Hi, and listened to my teacher more intently than usual. My teacher began explaining the activity by writing out the seasons on the board in kanji characters. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. 

Seasons often inspire art. I painted these on scrap pieces of wood in high school. After hanging them up in my room for a few years, I gave them away to a friend.

She pointed at each character, and instructed us that written letters in Japan often open with a greeting that comments on the weather or natural happenings related to that season. Seasonality is a significant part of Japanese culture and food; the iconic cherry blossoms in spring attract tourists from around the world. Confectionary shops and bakeries in Japan release limited edition flavors of their products according to the season and region they are in. In California, we have our own iconic blooms in the spring, like poppies and lupines. These wildflower superblooms that paint over the hills garner incredible attention too. Keiro No Hi, lands in the fall, so my teacher asked us to write about autumnal features.

Reminiscing this memory from Japanese school, I decided to start my letter to my friend with a greeting about the weather as well. Perhaps this will help my friend learn more about Japanese culture, I thought. I lived in California all my life, and while I visited my relatives in Japan from time to time, I perceive my understanding of Japanese culture and etiquette as fragmented and outdated. At the same time, I feel a lot of joy in deciding which cultural practices and ideas help me best. For example, my mother emphasized Koromogae when I was little, or changing your closet seasonally by packing away warm clothes in the late spring and packing away lightweight clothes in the fall. This seems like a very basic idea, but when you pair this task with an appreciation for seasons, you can create a Ghibli-esque enjoyment for yourself while sorting through your clothes.

Yellow flowers blooming on the hillsides of Mori Point, CA (photo by author)
"I feel a lot of joy in deciding which cultural practices and ideas help me best."

Going back to my letter, I glanced outside my window in search of inspiration and thought about how this year (for the most part) has been unusually cool in California. Usually, in April, I can work in a t-shirt. But this past spring I found myself wearing sweatshirts and wrapping myself in a blanket as I sat at my computer. Spring was different this year. My friend lived in New Jersey and I wondered if they were experiencing the same spring as I was. Seasons can look and feel differently depending on where you live, but in these past years seasons can especially vary due to the intense swings in weather caused by progressing climate change. The gentle and breezy April I was experiencing filled me with joy, but that joy was immediately followed by anxious questioning. Will this spring continue to be gentle? What will summer look like? As someone from California, seeing the red-orange pictures of New York dusted in wildfire ash from Canada brought back stressful memories of the 2018 and 2020 wildfire seasons. Summer typically means perpetual dryness and hot nights. The 2022-2023 winter storms brought temporary relief to our drought-stricken state, but the rain did not come without some of our community members losing their lives in floods and heavy snowfall. Sitting with the dual realities of relief and disaster isn’t easy, so I try to enjoy the mild and pleasant weather days with calculated optimism. This year’s unusually cool start to summer felt like a trojan horse, welcomed, but perhaps indicative of meteorological stress yet to come. Writing this letter to my friend made me wonder, how do we greet one another when we experience multiple climate crises in a season?

Left: Smokey skies in Sunnyvale, CA due to the 2020 wildfires. A turkey vulture sits on top of a bare tree. Right: Snow at Mt. Diablo State Park after the 2022-2023 winter storms. (Photos by author)

A few years ago, I started posting about the weather on my Instagram Story. I screenshot weather forecasts and tweets from my favorite meteorologists to update my friends about upcoming storms or heat waves. This was also a part of how I built my mindfulness practice, because I paid attention to how my body felt in response to the weather. The weather maps and analyses by meteorologists also offered some intellectual assurance of what to expect for the coming week. I used to not notice when I was too warm, which would make me feel very frustrated, because I thought I simply needed to drink more water (but it didn’t work). I fell into the habit of enduring (gaman, anyone?), but one day I gave myself permission to change into a lighter outfit midday. I realized that I needed to really listen and respond to my body in order to take care of it as the temperature changed significantly within a span of hours. Noticing the clouds, the winds, the temperature, and even checking the UV index, has helped me curate care for my body that also encouraged me to be present and take note of my surroundings. Noting the weather in this way also makes me feel more connected with my cultural and religious backgrounds. I feel grateful I have the means to take care of myself in such a way. I feel grateful that nature and the atmosphere send meteorological cues like letters of another making. 

What I like about seasonality culture in Japan, is that it teaches us to be grateful for passing beauty. Flowers bloom and fall. Leaves turn red and scatter in the wind. We say goodbyes at graduations and watch our friends take off on new adventures. We look ahead to the next season and offer gratitude for the current one fading away. Nature in Japan has inspired many famous haikus with seasonal references we can still understand in the present day. But climate change has also caused these seasonal charms to shift, like cherry blossoms in Japan blooming earlier in the year due to warmer winters. For many decades, we knew that seasons would not be the same every year. Climate change affects us all differently. The calm and mild days between storms and heat waves that I spend writing to friends mean so much more because of that. 

In April, I wrote a letter in Japanese to a friend. It opened, “The warm spring breeze brings me joy lately. Does it feel like spring where you are?”

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