Is April the cruelest month?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“April is the cruellest month,” writes T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in the opening line of his The Waste Land. How can April be the cruelest month? Gone are the coldest months of winter, at least for the people living in the Northern Hemisphere, when the very earth they tread on seems to be dead and frozen. With the arrival of warm, gentle spring showers, lilacs and other flowers come out of that dead land, as Eliot himself notes. Is April not the month we associate with the image of resurrection? Although it varies from year to year, does not Easter fall on in the month of April for most years, the time of celebration for Christians all over the world? How can it be the cruelest month?

April 15—or April 16 in the year when April 15 is a Sunday—is the dreaded deadline for Americans to file their individual tax returns. April can be the cruelest month for those Americans who find out that they owe a large sum of money to the Internal Revenue Service because of their large unexpected income for the previous year due, for example, to receiving an inheritance or winning a lottery. The April 15 deadline is indeed a cruel reminder to Americans that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”, as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) wrote in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy.

April can be the cruelest month for the people living in Tornado Alley, the area in the central region of the U.S. known for frequent and violent tornados, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Among these tornado-prone states, Kansas is probably best known to Americans—to non-Americans as well, for that matter—thanks to the vivid images of Dorothy being swept away by a tornado and carried to the land of Oz in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. While the National Weather Service does a good job today predicting the approach of violent weathers that potentially generate tornados, mental preparedness can never cover the loss of life and property a violent tornado causes, which happens quite often in the month of April in these states.

If April can be the cruelest month for some Americans, it can also be the cruelest month for some Japanese. For Japanese students, from primary schools to universities, April is the month the new school year begins. For young children who are starting the first year in primary schools, April is the first time they will be separated from the comfort of their homes and thrust right into the regimentation of school life, which can be quite traumatic for those who are naturally shy and timid. When they start “creeping like snail unwilling to school”, they may be exhibiting a sign of school phobia, or what the Japanese educators call “school refusal syndrome”, which has become one of the serious social issues facing school-age children in the last couple of decades. Although the exact number is difficult to come by, the Ministry of Education, which officially recognized the seriousness of the problem two decades ago, estimates that more than 100,000 school-age children may be suffering from this syndrome.

In Japan, April is also the beginning of the new business year as a result of the government’s decision to set the fiscal year to begin on April 1 and to end on March 31, the decision made back in 1886. Just like school-age children, new graduates from high schools and universities start their new career in business in April, facing the prospect of the regimentation of the workplace, which includes long work hours, daily rounds of visiting bars with superiors after the day’s work, and a low wage that reflects the traditional hierarchical wage structure called nenko jyoretsu. New entrants will soon learn about the reality of ubiquitous guidelines and regulations set by the government in the business world. While the watchful eyes of the government bureaucracy in Japan may not be as intrusive and menacing as those of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, they are still conspicuous enough to people in the business world, especially “on a bright cold day in April when the clocks are striking thirteen”.

April can also be the cruelest month for the Japanese when the yellow sands that originate in the deserts in the Northwestern region of China come all the way to the Japanese archipelago carried by the trade wind. While exports from China to Japan have been steadily expanding with the rise of Chinese manufacturing industries, the yellow sands must be said to be an unwelcome export from China, which has become the land of heavy pollution with industrialization. On days when the yellow sands cover the sky, even blocking the sunlight, the Japanese, especially with respiratory problems, are advised by the weather bureau to limit their outdoor activities. April with the yellow sands in the sky can be the cruelest month for the Japanese as they are deprived of the opportunity to fully enjoy viewing cherry blossoms, which is by far the most favorite activity for them around this time of the year. In a country where the Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on April 8, the cherry-blossom-viewing-season cut short by the yellow sands is another cruel reminder of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence for the Japanese, considering that the peak of the viewing-season lasts only for a week or so at the most.