All the Dead Brollys! Umbrellas in Japan

Living in Japan introduced one to a new attitude toward umbrellas. Different from the attitude many, maybe most, Westerners bring to Asia with them.  As the rainy season began soon after we moved, a wind and rainstorm lashed our town in Japan. That was nothing novel. It stormed to beat the band along the Gulf Coast. And in Botaswana, the adoration folks had toward rain led them to name their money after it – a great celebration came with the season’s change. What was different was the supreme, yes, even Zen-like relationship and cavalier attitude I saw, or Imagined I saw, toward rain in Japan. 

Wyeth’s Crusoe illustrates man’s needs: musket, hatchet, umbrella.

Japan: A Sea of Unbrellas in the Rainy Season

For the twenty-five minute walk into work my habit was to grab my worn, hiker’s-yellow poly-syllab-space-age-micro-pore-breathable rain-tight parka that had traveled with me for years, round-and-round the world. I donned it a million times and then the zipper ran a’ fowl. Fortunately, it also had long narrow Velcro strips to seal the storm flap, so I used that to hold the thing closed in the gusting wind. 

Because I’ve moved through cyclones and hurricanes, including Katrina in Louisiana in 1995, I knew this particular blow, though no typhoon, was indeed a savage one. It left limbs down, debris liberally strewn about, and at our apartment complex a formerly quite leafy and fairly substantial tree uprooted. Velcro alone didn’t do the job and the wind lashed rain saturated my shirt and dungarees by the time I got to my office desk. 

Remarkably, as I looked around during my walk, the Japanese had been doing battle with not only the wind, tormenting them with its whipping and curling, snapping and pounding, but with the umbrellas they insisted on trying to use. Perhaps needless to say – though I’ll say so regardless – many a brolly bit the dust (although every molecule of dust had of course been scoured away by the pitiless, driving rain) that morning. For days their spindly silver ribs glinted in the unusually clear sunlight, stuck in the weirdest places.

Buy Your Brolly: One Dollar, Ten Dollars, Three Hundred Dollars!

It became amusing to me, seeing how quickly umbrellas sprouted during rain. Especially apparently after some invention or other a decade or two ago of a super-cheap manufacturing method which made the 3-dollar umbrella commonplace and these gizmos became basically disposable. Years ago we were with friends in Manhattan. We rendezvoused with them, over from Paris, us up from New Orleans. It began to rain. The merchantile-ishly astute guy said, “Where are the umbrella sellers?” Back then, at first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. 

“Songxia has been described as the umbrella capitol of the world, and for good reason: According to local estimates, about half a billion umbrellas, or 30% of China’s production, are made here, supplied by more than 1000 factories. . . .” Now, we have really cheap brollys.

Then, boom, from nowhere, hawkers were selling cheap plastic umbrellas, doling them out from 5-gallon buckets for a few bucks. I don’t know where they came from nor where they went. But now they are a fixture of cities much like the Norway rat, except more useful – I don’t know how useful the Norway rat is, actually, to make that comparison meaningfully at this time. “They” tell me all God’s creatures have a purpose; if anyone knows the purpose the Norway rat serves in a bistro in Manhattan, let me know.

Anyway, a few years later my partner and I were in London, lost again although its one of our favorite cities, looking uncomprehendingly at a map book. We glanced around; surprised to see her surname on the classic umbrella store we had accidentally stopped in front of. Because I’d admired a so-called “shooting-stick umbrella,” design in the past, I went in to check on prices (about $200 – thus, I still don’t have a shooting-stick umbrella). These brollys were very much bespoke, luxury items: strong wooden or fiberglass shafts and cloth covers, cast-brass stirrups, folded heavy leather seats. Yet, $200 for something that I’d probably wind up forgetting on a bus was a bit over the top. If it had had a concealed sword . . .

Some weeks later, by odd coincidence and accident we happened on to a French equivalence of the handmade umbrella shop in a remote Paris neighborhood. But, while most of the bumbershoots in the hoary confides of England’s redoubt were redolent in masculinity—with an obvious anal retentive quality suggested by the tightly rolled and strapped devices—the French shop was filled with padded handles, lacy edges, and frills. I’d hazard a description that it took a more feminine approach.

Exactly What are Brollys For?

Japanese couple, hand-made umbrella, traditional setting.

I suppose umbrella-like contraptions have three functions, with blurry margins some times: a) they communicate some social meaning, b) they repel water, and c) they turn back the sun. Properly, a “parasol” involves the sun, a “parapluie” or umbrella the rain. We grew up seeing New Orleans’ Jazz funerals slinking through the streets; a handful of the celebrants or revelers sporting lavishly decorated parasols. Perhaps such fancy brollys hailed from Africa, legacy of Portuguese days when European ladies shielded the sun with big, black cloth parasols. We still saw them in use – indeed in Southern Africa the backpacks have “loops” for one’s umbrella.

Certainly when I worked and traveled in Botswana it was still the custom for blacks and whites alike to cast their own shadows with wide commercial umbrellas. Hikers would lash the furled brollys into the tie-points usually reserved for ice axes, the “J” handles extending up above the backpacks behind their heads as they trekked. When I mentioned this to a Japanese student during a “brown bag,” quick as a bunny he commented that, “we could not do that here; we bow. Bowing would be uncomfortable with the umbrella tied up like that.” That was a perceptive and quickly identified cultural point.

“There’s a long tradition of making  oil-paper umbrellas  in Yodoe, a city in Tottori Prefecture, Japan. The process involves over 70 steps, crafted on a variety of specially-made tools by skilled artisans, including harvesting and drying the bamboo, cutting the pieces to size, assembly, laying washing paper across the frame, waterproofing, and decorating with paint and fine strings.”

Louisiana is a wet state. So, when in Bill Murray’sStripe’s,that profoundly patriotic movie, during his early scene with the recruits clad in ponchos standing in a driving rain, he intones, “It is the cold and flu season,” it always gets a laugh. Ponchos were popular in Boy Scouts, with poncho liners having their own special kind of craft half-life.

Trench Coats, Jackets, and Parkas

Men also wore, and still wear, traditional garb such as trench coats (which, by the way, must be able to button right-to-left and left –to-right, and must have “D” rings on the left hip, and buttonable binocular epaulettes to be “trench coats.”) Enormously popular for a few decades after the war – look at a few of those classic noir b&w films.  Developed by Thomas Burberry in 1901 and used in the First World War — Burberry also invented gabardine — the “D” rings were there to attach the heavy bags of “OOO” buck for the American 12 gauge pump guns and the hand grenades used by special “storm” or “shock” troops sent in to clear the trenches; thus “trench coats”). Today these long, heavy, exquisitely made coats cost well over a thousand dollars. 

Making Japanese bridles: paper, glue, bamboo.

My wet wear preference is a micro-pore breathable parka and I used the same one for a few hundred thousand miles of travel – until like a  wearable one horse shey the entire garment essentially fell apart in one day. A “parka” is literally a pretty heavy coat for cold climates, same as an anorak, but “better living through chemistry” made these light rain gear types just about tissue thin and perhaps big as a book when zipped into it’s pouch. I don’t dislike umbrellas, and have owned a French wood-shafted umbrella, with a woven tip-to-grip lanyard (the French have the wonderful habit of slinging the things around your shoulder) since living in France in the 80’s.

Umbrella Etiquette

Helen Ruggieri (through the site spoke to the question of “Umbrella Etiquette” at some length, and it’s worth quoting – the site is also well worth a look, too, for its other groovy penetrations into cultural stuff and to read her unexpurgated essay on umbrellas.

”As with all things Japanese there is an art to using umbrellas and during the long rainy season you have time to learn it,” Ruggieri says. Then, she launches into a couple of thousand well-chosen words about the Japanese, the weather, and sticks with ribs and covers. 

The Japanese archipelago has a pretty well defined rainy season corresponding to summer in the States. When tsuyu baiu (rainy season) arrives in Japan, the likely choice is to grab a brolly and tough it out. The chain of islands is long and narrow which means lots of climate variety, and the conditions are not identical for urban megalopolis and rural flyspeck, but generalities can be made.

In Ruggieri’s Japan world, “given the assurance of rain (it makes the rice grow those chipper sorts squeal), you never travel without an umbrella. You always know you’ll need one. Folding umbrellas are not popular although I do see folks taking them out of their backpacks quite often. You have to fold them up and stuff them in a plastic bag. The pop-up umbrellas are favored. They pop open at the touch of a button. Quicker operation and valued for ease of use upon entering and exiting busses or taxis or other types of transportation which call for rapid movement.” Well, being from the American South, and maybe chipper, too, I just say, “great weather for the ducks,” when it rains although I don’t know if our foul, feathered bi-peds like the rain, either, on point of fact. 

Fun In the Rain

My partner and I lived in a much smaller dwelling node than Tokyo, near a university. So, I would see a disproportionate number of young people. Our human circus is filled with brolly-free runners and cycling pairs: one person peddles the bicycle; a second sits on the back holding an umbrella for the both of them – one of my very favorite sights in Japan. 

But Ruggieri, apparently a denizen of Tokyo, spoke to the urban reality saying that “as with all things Japanese there is an art to using umbrellas and during the long rainy season you have time to learn it. As you walk the crowded streets of Tokyo umbrellas bob up and down as those approaching gauge the rhythm of your walk and the pace of your approach multiplied by your height. The umbrellas pass without collision as eye contact reveals our intentions. Up, down, up down. We march along in a great rhythmic bobbing stream. The dance.” She continues on to compare and contrasts the difference in behavior (we both think it probably more gentle and civilized) between umbrella wielders in Japan and the US.

A sporting event, a charoot, and my trolly – and wilderness is paradise.

Still, our opinions and experiences in Asia are not always the same. I saw and would describe for others the same racks, umbrella bags, and hanging railings that Ruggieri did, and noticed what I took to be similar civil behavior in the rain. But that travel memoirist recounted that “no one ever takes your umbrella by accident. You gain an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of your umbrellas so you can pick it out of a crowd of others – all black pop-ups.”  Perhaps umbrellas are not taken by accident, but mine was stolen to avoid being rained on – I suppose that’s taken with intent. And I had umbrellas just handed to me by strangers when I had been walking, getting wet in the rain, and caught out brolly-less. Also, in my neck-o-the woods, while many umbrellas are indeed black, I’d venture that the cheap, see-through clear model were, at that time, the most common. 

”At the new Opera House in Tokyo there is an umbrella rack in the lobby to hold the thousands of umbrellas that the audience members have deposited,” Ruggieri goes on to describe. “You twist in your umbrella and lock the lever. Each one has a chit with a number on it. This isn’t to prevent umbrella thieves from making off with your parasol, but to prevent endless sorting upon exiting. You have the number so it is easy (and no charge either) to find the correct umbrella.” Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe a rougher sort of hombre hangs out at the Tokyo opera house, lurking about ready to upgrade to a classier kind of bumbershoot! 

After a couple better-turned paragraphs Ruggieri closes by describing the carnage wreaked on poor brollys by Japan’s high winds. “On gomi pick up days discarded umbrellas perch from the lips of black plastic bags, rest on the curb, in the gutter. The most creative recycling of discarded umbrellas I saw during my visit to Japan was on a small strip of land between the highway and an exit ramp. A homeless person had constructed a huge shelter of umbrellas – more like a sculpture, a work of art, a great congregation of umbrellas billowing out like a geodesic dome.” The essayist, Helen Ruggieri, wrote these comments back in 2002 when her new book of haibun—haiku and prose–, Character for Women, was being released by Foothills Publishing.

Umbrellas are no less popular with today’s Japanese, and, indeed, in some ways fill special roles.

Certainly more could be said about umbrellas – and why folks struggle to use the things in a fierce head wind. As I child, I’m sure I’m not the only one who tried to “sail” on roller skates, holding an umbrella (no, did not work!) Or, it would be curious to know the details of umbrella use in Africa, or how the object itself was invented and then how manufacturing changed over time. 

Groundnut dealer prepares for business – as soon as the goobers are spread out for sale, the big parapluie goes up, protecting seller and buyer for the African sun.

For now, however, I get a kick trying to figure out how that beat up, broken umbrella got there- when I see one in some odd or unusual place as I sit zipping along on the train or as I walk to work on a fine, not-rain filled day.  One day my partner was heading to Oaxaca, Mexico for a few weeks, for some narratology fieldwork.  She stopped for a couple of days at our alternate “home base” in South Louisiana. We’d used a small tailoring shop there from time to time, including repairing my heavy horse leather king-of-the-road motorcycle jacket, replacing a brass zipper that seemed to weigh five pounds. I asked about having a new PPK nylon zipper put into my shell parka to get another few hundred thousand miles out of it. Turns out it just needed expert hands to cram the runners back into the slots. Now, I’m good to go. 

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