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Rising Summer Heat in Japan

Summer - a vibrant and aesthetic time of the year, characterized by longer days and dazzling heat. Here in Japan the season is marked by festivals such as Obon (celebrating the dead) and countless stalls selling cotton candy, yakisoba (fried noodles), and blue bottles of ramune soda. It is also the period when the icy tinkling of fūrin (windchimes) can be heard in neighborhoods, with a myriad of kakigōri (shaved ice) offered at tea stores. And of course, the ubiquitous drone of cicadas; arguably the representative sound of Japan’s summers. So far, summer in Japan sounds quite pleasant, except for one major bother: the heat. Image: Kakigōri (shaved ice), such as the one above drizzled with mango sauce, are traditional and popular desserts for cooling down in Japan (picture taken by writer).

In recent years, temperatures continue to soar to incredible levels during summer in Japan. Heat stroke has become a danger well looked out for, with warnings noted daily on the weather report. The severity of heat strokes has increased, indicated by the number of deaths each year. In addition to the hundreds rushed to hospital, at least 162 people have died from confirmed or suspected heatstroke this year. Despite its location in the Northern Hemisphere, East Asia, Japanese summers can reach over 35 degrees celsius with heavy humidity levels that rival tropical climates. This pairing of extreme temperatures with high humidity produces the unbearable, balmy weather that plagues Japan around August. A record high of 41.1°C was made in Kumagaya, Saitama (2018); a place now recognized for its record-breaking temperatures. 

Older Japanese generations, particularly those born in the Bubble Era (1980s) complain that summers back then were much tolerable, with breezy mornings and mildly hot weather. Nowadays, even early mornings at times such as 6am are annoyingly balmy already. Summers are no longer the blissful, comfortable periods enjoyed by older generations; now replaced by nausea-inducing heat waves that can kill. With aforesaid deaths caused by heatstroke, the heat has gained a dangerous reputation, under careful watch by the Meterological Agency who announces warnings that going outdoors could be “life-threatening.” Every summer, adverts and warnings blare messages to stay hydrated. As a result, soft drink sales have skyrocketed amid increased temperatures; beverage companies such as Asahi are pushing products aimed at helping to prevent dehydration and heatstroke.

Image: On a typical summer day in Tokyo, parasols are a common sight, wielded generally by older women to stay cool and prevent sunburn.

The heat is particularly intense in the cities, where the vast asphalt and concrete combined with the lack of greenery, produces dizzying heat waves in a heat island effect. In response, many urban spaces in Tokyo such as Asakusa deploy mist sprays to cool the streets and passerbys; often popular with gatherings during the hottest times of the day. One can feel getting scorched by both the heat that radiates from the sun above and the one reflected from the ground. It is no surprise that the heat is a major subject regarding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, especially concerns over preventing the athletes and audience from getting heatstroke. Plans include assuring that trees along the marathon route are not trimmed back as is usual in Tokyo in order to provide shade. It is still dubious whether measures such as this can be effective for future heat waves. 

Image: A map by the Japan Meteorological Agency displays the alarming extent of heat waves across the country (the highest in dark purple is 35 celsius).

Japan’s situation is one of many that are displaying worrying signs of global warming. Other areas across the globe are experiencing alarming heat waves. Records were also broken in Australia as well as rapid wildfires in places such as Sweden, Greece and California. The heat also takes a heavy toll on the environment, a reality that cannot be forgotten. As tens of thousands of fruit bats fell to the ground dead in Australia, mussels experienced what appears to be the largest local die-off in 15 years in California. Everywhere, people and animals are falling victim to heat waves as they reach dizzying heights. Given the recent wave of anti-environmentalism sparked by major global figures such as Trump of the US and Bolsonaro of Brazil, both of whom disregard environmental protection, the outlook looks grim. Just as Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Treaty Agreement could eventually discourage the rest of the world from cutting heat-trapping gas emissions, global policymaking has come to a standstill terms of battling climate change. 

This is not normal. It is terrifying that people are dying on the streets and in their homes from the heat. Japan was not like this before. Other countries too, are facing unprecedented weather. Change is urgent to halt heat waves from reaching any higher. 

Anna Kono

Waseda '20

Anna is a graduate from Waseda University in the SILS department. Likes art, animals, anything that is dandy and stylish. Needs to go to the sea every now and then to recharge.
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