Images of Japanese Summer: Traditional Shades- sudare (the hanging type) and yoshizu (the leaning type)
By Avi Landau
The summer sun is not only brutally hot, it also lingers long in the western sky.
This can be tortuous if you have to work in a room facing that direction, or if you are on a bus, train or car with no protection from the sun. Especially in the weeks right after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, waiting for this relentless heat and glare to fade away can seem like an endless affair.
The Japanese have a special expression for this long lasting, punishing, summer sunshine which comes at us from the west in afternoons and evenings- NISHIBI (西日) which can be directly translated as WESTERN SUN, and is used as a keyword (kigo) in haiku poetry to indicate the longest hottest days of summer.
For centuries the Japanese have tried to neutralize these unrelenting summer sunbeams by the use of shades ( I guess they could also be called blinds or screens) made of the stems of reeds or of slenderly cut strips of bamboo. These are most commonly placed or hung outside windows on the southern or western sides of houses, shops, restaurants, or offices.
These reeds or bamboo strips are woven together so as to leave enough space between to allow any precious breeze that there might be to pass through the room(s)- while being just close enough together to keep out insects and other pesky bugs.
These screens are also good for maintaining privacy, as you cannot easilly see what is going on inside a room though these shades while you CAN see what going on outside from within.
And it cannot go unmentioned that, as with most traditional Japanese things, these shades are not only utilitarian but also aesthetically pleasing.
Of course, today this is still true when the screens are put up around traditional homes or shops. Outside western-style shops convenience stores, or fast-food restaurants they can look quite odd- though still do the job!
I used to think that all such traditional screens were called SUDARE 簾 (pronounced su DAH reh)、 but later learned that this was the term usually applied to the screen which are hung outside windows and whose reeds hang horizontally.
The type of shade which is made of thicker reeds and is usually leaned against the outside of a shop, restaurant or home are called YOSHIZU (葦簀). Even if these shades are hung and not leaned (as they usually are) they can be identified by the fact that their reeds stand vertically and not horizontally.
If you take a stroll through any part of Japan from July Through September you are going to see a wide variety of SUDARE and YOSHIZU- mostly on the southern and western side of buildings. While they have been commonly made by from readily available materials here in Japan for centuries, most of the ones you see today (and there is an impressively wide variety) are imported from China.
Though in this short post I intended to focus on these rustic traditional screens as they used by the general populace throughout the hot season in Japan, similarly made (though much more elegant and fringed in fabric) reed screens were also long used (since at least as far back as the 8th century) to screen the Emperor, the Shoguns, ladies of the court, or other aristocrats from view. Used in this way, reed screens are called MISU (御簾) and they are mentioned in the 11th century novel the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) as part of the complex system of etiquette which ruled the relationship between men and women- woman would only meet men who courted them from behind a screen- until things progressed a little further between them !
That is why you can find the haiku KIGO (keyword)- sudare- being used not only as a way of indicating the season and to symbolize protection from the summer heat, but also to indicate a filtered, sanitized way of viewing the world. For example, there is this poem
世の中を美しと見し簾かな (上野泰) YO NO NAKA O UTSUKUSHI TO MI SHI SUDARE KA NA (Ueno Yasushi)
which I roughly translate as: To see this world as beautiful- look at it through a reed screen !
Of course, all sorts of non-traditional screens, binds and curtains are used as well in Japan today. An interesting development in recent years, however, has been the growing popularity of what the Japanese call GREEN CURTAINs. Instead of leaning YOSHIZU or hanging SUDARE outside the windows facing the south or west many people set up nets upon which they try to grow creeping plants- especially GO-YA (bitter gourd) who plant has little yellow flowers.
You can see massive green curtains growing on the south side of the Tsukuba City Office.
Anyway, if you are suffering from the intense heat which builds up in your roos facing west or south- go to the store and buy yourself some SUDARE or YOSHIZU!