Spring, summer, autumn, winter. The four seasons are universal. But in Japan, there are some “extra” ones. The four seasons can be separated into 24 parts and then into a further 72 periods. These micro seasons change every five or six days. They all have names too to reflect the time of year and its nature, such as “Kamakiri Shozu” or “Nijikakuretemezu”, turning the calendar into a poem.
There is a popular app that gives its users digital content about these Shichijuuni-ko (“72 seasons”) and the seasonal items that match each one. Kurashi no Koyomi (Everyday Life Almanac) was created by ad agency Dentsu and the publisher Heibonsha’s joint Utsukushii Kurashikata Kenkyujo (Beautiful Living Research Lab), with some help from PingMag’s editor-in-chief Tom Vincent.
In today’s world of modern conveniences where ubiquitous airconditioning and heating prevent us from getting a genuine sense of the changing seasons, why would people be interested in restoring these arcane mini seasons?
Tom Vincent sat down with Hirokazu Tanaka from Dentsu and Mao Kamiya from Heibonsha to learn more.
How did the Utsukushii Kurashikata Kenkyujo come about?
Tanaka: We wondered if we could get corporate sponsorship for content that functions like a kind of public education course by taking out the old knowhow that Japanese used to have about lifestyle and streaming it on Ustream or Niconico. We thought we’d develop things based on a name like “Beautiful Living Research Lab” and that’s how it started.
And why did you then decide to make an app themed around the calendar?
Tanaka: When we came here to Heibonsha we saw lots of encyclopedia and picture books. We wondered if we could digitalize these somehow. Just at that time the iPad had been released so we ended up making something for iPad users.
Kamiya: We just really wanted to make something for the iPad. That’s how it started.
Tanaka: And then we came across these Sajiki [a list of seasonal words, such as those used in haiku] books.
Kamiya: This Sajiki is one that Heibonsha has compiled for haiku. It’s like a kind of manual for haiku poets. It collects kigo [seasonal words] such as hadashi for the summer. So, it says “washing hair” [kami o arau] is a summer kigo. It makes you wonder if people just didn’t wash their hair the rest of the year!
But this isn’t so accessible for ordinary people so we also made a series of books with Saijiki that could be convenient for living in Japan today.
Saijiki originally just had examples of the poetry in them and so unless you were a haiku poet the list of words wouldn’t mean much to you about the seasons. So in our magazine we added visuals and also things like guides for listening to the sounds of insects — information that was more accessible for normal people’s lives today. It’s something with which you can experience and enjoy a calendar year through words and photographs.
This caught our eye during a meeting together and from that time we began to move in the direction of making something like a Saijiki.
Tanaka: Yes, when I first saw them I thought they were fantastic. This is what Heibonsha does so well. I thought we could even just put this content as it was into an iPad app.
But the final Kurashi no Koyomi app is actually even more refined in the information it provides, based on the “72 seasons” (Shichijuuni-ko), and this makes it really easy to use.
Tanaka: Well, when we first brainstormed the content there was even more.
Kamiya: For example, would we include lots of festivals? In all 365 days of the year, there is always going to be a festival happening somewhere. We had to ask ourselves whether we’d ultimately include all of them.
Tanaka: Yes, and not just kigo but also food. We had a lot of potential content. I thought we could just put the whole thing into an iPad app but as we met and discussed it, I came to see this would be pretty problematic. And that’s how we came to focus just on the 72 seasons, which would make it more accessible. I originally conceived it as iPad content available once every five days.
Kamiya: With the haiku Saijiki we had a list of the 72 seasons but this knowledge has been lost. Almost no one today remembers them.
When we were looking over the list together Tanaka said the “72 seasons” sounded like some sort of spell. He said the phrase felt very fresh and interesting to him.
While this old knowledge of the 72 seasons is being forgotten it was something new to pinpoint them and send it to people. So fixing our sights on this was a big turning point for us.
Tanaka: We liked the ambiguity of the five, sometimes six days of each of the 72 seasons. We’re used to things that happen once a week or every two weeks, but a five-day cycle was intriguingly incomplete. Plus, thinking that the season changes once every five days means you also start to see things around you in a different way. We thought this sort of delicate Asian sensibility was interesting.
But just what are these “72 seasons” anyway?
Kamiya: They aren’t a fixed calendar. They haven’t been properly worked out; they are just a kind of rough standard. They are built on basic ideas like how when temperatures rise ice melts and so on, and then the days were calculated based on this.
During the Edo era it seems there were three types of calendars that existed side-by-side. First there were the official events and the Shogunate would decide what happened on what day, regardless of the seasons. Without dates you can’t fix things properly so they made the lunar calendar based on the moon. This is what we call the “old calendar”.
But this doesn’t match with the movements of the sun and this makes for problems with things like farming. So there was also a calendar based on divisions of solar patterns. This was the Nijuushi-sekki ["24 seasons", the lunar terms]. It divided the days based on the position of the sun, such as the spring and autumn equinoxes.
And then these 24 were further divided into 72 in a playful way.
Tanaka: Each is interesting in its own way, we felt. A calendar can be thought of as something like the history of humanity, though it’s also a tool for communicating with nature, as well as being a tool for the powers that be to maintain control of people. There are political issues here. But the 72-season calendar is different.
Kamiya: The reason these 24 and 72-season calendars developed in the Edo era was probably because at the time, a calendar had its own very strong political significance, and to try to change that was literally dicing with death. Something as strong as this would have been oppressive again and it doesn’t match with your sense of lifestyle or the seasons.
If you thought a day in February was cold, it might feel differently in four years’ time even though the date is the same. But officially people used the dates. Yet this can become absurd so something like the 72-season calendar that matched with the changes in nature was probably to provide relief for regular everyday life.
And the language used to express each of the seasons is also very beautiful, isn’t it?
Kamiya: Yes, it has a lovely resonance. Many of our app users have said that the words are beautiful as Japanese.
Tanaka: I think you can get enough out of the app content just from the information the 72 seasonal words provide or the inspirations they offer.
Japanese people like the seasons, don’t they? For example, when it comes to promoting the “Japan” brand, you always get things that exalt the beauty of Japan’s seasons. And there are so many words to express the seasons that you can compile them into a big thick book like those haiku Saijiki ones. The four seasons are basically universal the world over but it’s a bit curious why the Japanese have such pride in them.
Tanaka: Yes, perhaps it’s because the awareness of shun (seasonality) is strong? Or it might be that people try to enjoy each moment for what it’s worth — a kind of ephemerality.
Kamiya: It’s probably because long ago all they ever did was think about the seasons. And people were fussier about things like changing kimonos to match the weather. There was a stronger sense that things that weren’t right for the season were bad. I think people long ago were obsessed with assimilating the seasons in what they ate or wore.
And even today the shelves are always packed with seasonal products. Perhaps this is the same sensibility.
Kamiya: In a way, the Japanese are fixated on the seasons.
Your app has an interesting interface. It isn’t divided into pages but you read horizontally like a scroll.
Tanaka: When magazine iPad apps were first released they had a lot of Flash movies and so on, and they were really impressive. But we thought that wouldn’t work for us. It’s fun just to move things with your fingers and these are short enough that you can read one just when riding the train for one stop, so in the end we decided to put the poems next to each other.
And at the time we wanted to make it a bit highbrow. While some people might not be able to read some basic kanji characters, we didn’t want to include syllabic readings to help readers. Being a bit unaccommodating like this is the best way to take advantage of Heibonsha’s reputation for erudition.
Kamiya: The language of the 72 seasons is very difficult to read. It’s like reading classical Chinese, right? But we have reset it into very Japanese expressions. We thought that when something makes you ponder its meaning it stays with you for longer, so we deliberately left in tricky kanji.
And how was the response from app users?
Tanaka: Before we knew it, we were number two in the overall rankings for iPad apps! The iPhone version also reached eighteen in the rankings. We had so much traffic our servers crashed.
And how many downloads have you reached now?
Tanaka: Including the iPad, iPhone and Android versions, there have been around 290,000 so far.
And then you turned the app content into a book.
Tanaka: Actually, around when we released the book, there were many other books with the same concept, though this was not such a bad thing. We were once interviewed by a newspaper as the people who had apparently started this big trend for the Shichijuuni-ko. It’s just a bit of a shame that the books that came along later are cheaper and so sell better. [Laughs]
As a business there is the question of what other things you can offer the people who have downloaded Kurashi no Koyomi. One of our experiments was the paid app, Tsusumikata Kyoshitsu (Classroom for Wrapping). This was also a bit highbrow but the way it worked was rather groundbreaking. If you bought the app you then got washi [Japanese paper] sent to you in the mail. But this was a bit too highbrow.
Kamiya: It was just too new in the way it worked. There were people who bought the app who didn’t even know it came with the Japanese paper.
You recently released a recipe book. Are food topics popular among the content you product?
Tanaka: Yes, if you look at Twitter you can see a lot of people tweet about food, so we made a special book focusing on that.
Kamya: There are lots of tweets asking how to eat something or saying they are going to eat goya because it was now in season. This is also a once-in-five days thing but it seems right for people today, who are less and less cooking for themselves at home. This way there’s no pressure.
What plans do you have for Kurashi no Koyomi in the future?
Tanaka: We can probably make extra paid content for the app but rather than going down the road, we’d like to expand what we are doing.
Kamiya: Instead of just stopping things where they are now, our ideal would be to build a business system where other people could use things for themselves once we have completed the whole concept. We’d also definitely like to make versions for local Japanese areas.
Yes, like a super local version or something. The 72 seasons in your own garden or, if you don’t have a garden, wherever you are in your life in the city.
Kamiya: Yes, like one for selling oden.
Tanaka: Or vending machine colors.
Kamiya: We’d like to try doing a “My 72 Seasons Contest”.
Tanaka: And we’d also like to offer versions in other languages, such as in Chinese or English.
Yes, since the seasons are different depending on whether you’re in Boston or Cornwall.
Kamiya: Yes, there wouldn’t be “72″ then, depending on the place.
Well, if it was Fiji it would probably be just one, though! But even that would be interesting in its own way. The passage of time might well be universal but the way you sense this varies from place to place. If we could look at and compare all these differences, that would be a lot of fun.
Hirokazu Tanaka and Mao Kamiya, thank you!
For iPhone :
For iPad :