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Japan: Those Commonplace, Vinyl Umbrellas

A traditional Japanese umbrella or wagasa, made of bamboo and Japanese paper, is a beautiful thing. The most common umbrella however, is this cheap, translucent type made from plastic and vinyl. It can be bought practically anywhere at kiosks and convenience stores.

‘Only boring rain, no snow’ by kirainet

Ownership

Mari at watashi to tokyo explains how they are so common that sense of ownership is very low.

Actually at the office, so many people use that umbrella that it is impossible to tell which one is mine or yous. So we take one when it suddenly rains, without meaning any harm. People seem to think as if the clear vinyl umbrella is freeware. Almost automatically, people collect vinyl umbrella like this. Ah, I do the same.

Intentional or not, the umbrella stands in front of convenience store doors are a prime location for umbrella switching and theft. A commenter on Tagame's blog recounts a recent episode:

前にちょっといいビニール傘をコンビニの外の傘立てに置いておいたら、出てきた時には骨がさび付いたふる~いビニール傘に変わってました。

I left a relatively expensive vinyl umbrella in the stand in front of a convenience store. When I came out after a while, it had transformed into an old, rusted one.

A fed up @Yutarine darkly tweeted:

雨の日のコンビニで他人の傘をパクる奴には等しく死を。

Death to all who steal other people's umbrellas at convenience stores on rainy days.

Weather forecast

Many people have made it a habit to check the forecast in the morning. Lester Ho said:

As you know that the weather report in Japan are 90% accurate and everyone will know today’s weather and if it’s going to rain, you can see plenty of people ready their umbrella before it starts raining on the day.

While 90% might be an exaggeration, not being caught off guard (and wet!) is important. Perhaps it reveals a bit of your habits? The blogger at Odeon Apple wonders if a salesperson with a vinyl umbrella, as opposed to a “real” one, would come off as a bit hurried and untrustworthy to their customer.

「この人、朝のニュースや天気予報も見ずに外に出かけ、行った先でビニール傘を買うなんて、準備などがきちんとできない人じゃないだろうか、行き当たりばったりなんじゃないの」と思われそうなこと。

Some might think, “This person left their house without checking the morning news or forecast, and bought a vinyl umbrella along the way. Such a person might erratic or not very good at planning ahead.”

Screenshots of the Umbrella app

There's even an iPhone app from a Japanese company whose sole purpose is to inform whether you need to bring an umbrella today. The Tokyo Hacker blog introduces it in a post titled “Say goodbye to vinyl umbrellas” [ja].

Lost and found

Umbrellas are #1 in the list of lost properties delivered to the Metropolitan Police Department. In 2006, there were approximately 430,000 umbrellas delivered, which accounts for more than 20% of all lost properties.

The Association of Japanese Private Railways even starts their definition of “lost properties” with a mention of umbrellas in a dictionary of railway related terminology.

大都市の鉄道では、「ひと雨500本」という言葉が示すように、雨が降ると傘の忘れ物が多くなります。

Like the saying “One rain, 500 umbrellas” goes, railway companies in metropolitan areas receive many lost umbrellas on rainy days.

The city of Kanazawa operates a project that makes use of the piles of umbrellas that are collected by the railway company each year. They are made available for free rental in a dozen places, including tourist centers and buses. Marked with the logo of singer Eri Takena, they can be returned to any of the designated spots. Bad habits don't seem to go away, though. A majority of the umbrellas went unreturned last year – it seems that many tourists take them home as keepsakes.

It won't be long before the Japan Meteorological Agency officially declares the beginning of the mainland's rainy season.

10 comments

  • Actually, I like the idea of people taking just one of all the umbrellas. A city council over here had the idea to buy some bikes for free usage in town, but soon all of them were stolen :(
    People are too selfish, why do they always have to steal everything?

    I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if there was like a public umbrella storage and you could take them anywhere and just put into a bucket in front of your house for the next one passing by? So another person would take it and maybe leave it at a store.

    Yet, it seems like people care rather about their property :(

  • I feel oddly placated by knowing that the umbrella switching or stealing doesn’t just happen in Latin America. Sometimes we consider that it happens to us because we live in a 3rd world country; but it seems to be that it’s just human nature to take a slightly better umbrella from a stand… because maybe that someone also used to have a better umbrella that someone else took, leaving us with their rusty mess and the urge to get back our umbrella…

  • Great post Tomomi – it’s hard to think of anything more easy to relate to!

    This year in particular I’m trying to avoid even a single day of being caught without an umbrella in the rain, but I’m between a bit of a rock and a hard place. People generally never take nicer umbrellas – I’m aware of this, yet considering the (at least) 70 or so umbrellas I’ve lost in the last couple years have been probably 99% my fault (forgetting it somewhere), that disinclines me to pay more. Maybe I’ll buy an expensive one and chain it to my wrist or something.

  • The funny thing is, originally I thought I’d quote some experiences about stealing or ‘trading up’ and how it was kind of acceptable because a lot of people regard them as common property.

    There were LOADS of blog entries about people getting their umbrellas stolen, some more self-righteous than others. Guess it’s human nature as well, that people aren’t going to blog or tweet saying “Hey, I lucked out on a new umbrella today!”. Ha.

    @Matt
    That’s basically what I did! Bought a really nice (and pricey) umbrella and managed to keep it for 3-4 years, a fact I was ridiculously proud of. I lost it and now hate myself a little bit every time I have to buy a vinyl one…. I need to get over the guilt and commit to another nice one.

  • gie

    I buy only cheap umbrella, just in case it’s lost, it doesn’t hurt..most people can remember their umbrella only when it rains..if an umbrella is lost, I just imagine that it is helping another person…

  • @Tomomi: So you mean that only vinyl umbrellas are regarded as common property? If you buy a blue one and put it in a stall then nobody will take it, because it’s obvious that it belongs to somebody?

    Then I would not understand why people complain about the system. You could just buy a non-transparent umbrella and use it all the time if you do not want to exchange it with other people ;)

  • @berliner strasse: I like your idea of a public umbrella system. Perhaps that could be extended to other things: bicycles, cars, books, etc.

  • @Andy Yee:
    In case you are interested, we have something like a public car system in Ulm (unfortunately I do not live there). I think it is done by Mercedes and it’s called “car2go”.
    You can check an online map where cars are standing currently and then click on “take this car”. Then you have some minutes time to get there and drive anywhere you want (in Ulm area). There, you just leave the car and its new position is given on the map, so anybody else can click on “take this car”.

    I think you have to pay for is how long you use it (minutes) or how much you drive (kilometers). So it is not totally public, but at least it’s very useful and I guess if it was totally public nobody would get new gasoline :D

  • @berlinerstrasse: Well, many business people own black or dark blue umbrellas that look quite similar. It would have a much higher chance of being stolen than say, a red umbrella. Perhaps not from a public stall, but “borrowed” from the stall at your office. I’m just speaking in general, though.

    I like your word “system” for this phenomenon. It is a system indeed, one with unspoken rules that stands on its feet because “everyone does it”.

    @Andy
    Now that you mention it, some people leave magazines in the train racks when they’re finished reading them. It’s mostly trashy weekly mags for men so I’ve never done it myself, but I’ve seen people reach up and settle down for some light reading before putting it back and getting off.

  • rr

    It’s worse for me, when 90% of umbrellas aren’t large enough to keep my feet from getting soaked. I buy the “up-sized” cheap umbrella for a little extra coverage, then come out of the store to find it’s shrunk… and maybe even aged.

    Like the other commenters, maybe I should buy something nice so I can build a bond with it. Or possibly I need one to be gifted to me? As much as I see them used, are umbrellas good gift items in Japan? They don’t seem to be.

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