By Erika Hobart20th January 2020

The concept of natsukashii permeates Japanese culture, from traditional alleyways in Tokyo to the popularity of stores selling film cameras.

During my childhood summers spent in Yokohama, Japan, my obaachan (grandmother) would take me on afternoon strolls through her neighbourhood and teach me the names of all the flowers we came across. The cicadas would shriek over her soft voice and the humidity would cling to my body like a second layer of skin. When we returned home, the two of us would cool off over ice-cold glasses of mugicha (barley tea). "Am I your favourite grandchild?" I would ask her. My obaachan would smile and whisper, "Yes."

My obaachan passed away in April 2019, and last summer was my first one without her. Now the taste of mugicha takes me back to our precious summer strolls. "Natsukashii," I always think as the taste hits my tongue.

The writer spent many happy childhood summers with her grandmother in Yokohama (Credit: Erika Hobart)
Natsukashii is a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past. It’s a word you exclaim as a smile creeps across your face. For instance, when you hear a song you loved as a teenager, or when you come across an old train ticket stub in your pocket.

In some cultures, nostalgia is often full of sadness. But natsukashii – which derives from the verb "natsuku", which means "to keep close and become fond of" – indicates joy and gratitude for the past rather than a desire to return to it. In Japan, natsukashii is a reminder that you are fortunate to have had the experiences you’ve had in life. The fact that you cannot return to those experiences makes them all the more poignant.

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"A positive frame put around longing is the essence of natsukashii," said Christine Yano, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, whose research focuses on Japanese popular culture. "It’s part of the emotional foundation of Japan. A glass half empty is a glass that’s full and beautiful."

"I think in Japan, nostalgia has to do with an aesthetic," she continued. "This is the aesthetic that sees beauty in imperfection, in something not being quite complete, in longing, in yearning, in evanescence, in impermanence, wistfulness, in melancholy. It is an aesthetic invested with emotion and beauty at the same time."

A positive frame put around longing is the essence of natsukashii

Aesthetic concepts in the traditional Japanese arts were developed in pre-modern Japan. One of the earliest to emerge was wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy rooted in Buddhism that finds beauty in imperfection and impermanence; examples include deliberately misshapen bowls used in tea ceremonies and bonsai trees displayed even after they’ve shed their leaves. Yano suggests that Japan’s approach to nostalgia is akin to wabi-sabi – but it’s life, rather than objects, that’s being celebrated for its imperfections.

Wabi-sabi favours the imperfect and incomplete in everything, from pottery to flower arranging (Credit: Ekaterina Senyutina/Getty Images)
Sumie Kawakami, a writer who teaches liberal arts at the International College of Liberal Arts (iCLA) at Japan’s Yamanashi Gakuin University, echoes that sentiment. She describes natsukashii as a bittersweet form of reminiscing. "We miss the time – but it’s better that way," she said.

In today’s digital age, people seem to be more obsessed than ever with nostalgia. But in Japan, paying tribute to the past goes far beyond sharing the occasional #ThrowbackThursday post on social media or binge-watching an ‘80s TV show reboot.

On any given night of the week, Tokyo businessmen can be found blowing off steam in yokocho, traditional alleyways containing bars and restaurants. These cramped, cash-only establishments surrounded by glowing lanterns and cigarette smoke are a portal to another era, as they were originally part of black markets that cropped up in the city following World War Two.

And last summer, Japanese Twitter went wild after someone shared a video they made using an app that replicated the VHS camcorder recording quality of the 1980s. Tens of thousands of people rushed to find out what the app was (VHS Cam), then share their own videos using it.

Yokocho alleyways in Tokyo are crammed with bars and eateries serving traditional Japanese fare (Credit: Starcevic/Getty Images)

"It always surprises me, the degree to which natsukashii comes up," Yano told me. "One could say, ‘Oh, that’s mainly for old people.’ But it’s amazing how quickly a young person becomes ‘old’ in terms of natsukashii. An 18-year-old may feel natsukashii for kindergarten days."

Kawakami compares the sentiment to the English phrase "the good old days". "But there may be a slight difference," she noted. "When Japanese say 'natsukashii’, they want to confirm that togetherness, rather than simply being nostalgic to a particular event or person. [It's like] 'Yeah, we were together on this!'"

The demand for natsukashii experiences is so strong throughout Japan that there are companies that specialise in creating them. In 2002, Masahito Itami founded Dousoukai Net, a company that organises reunions for alumni across the country. High school and university reunions are commonplace in many parts of the world, but Itami also runs events for former elementary school peers and co-workers from defunct businesses.

"Even if it’s getting together with people you used to work with, there is a sense of intimacy and connection you get from being with the people who’ve shared the same experiences as you," Itami explained. "Whether they’re good or bad experiences, they all blossom into great stories to look back on together."

Natsukashii indicates joy and gratitude for the past (Credit: tdub_video/Getty Images)

Yumi Hisano, an Osaka native who has attended not one, but four high school reunions organised by Dousoukai Net over the past 20 years, agrees.

"It was so meaningful to meet with people I hadn’t seen since getting married and leaving Osaka," she recalled of the first reunion, which got her hooked. "I wanted to hear their stories and find out how they’d lived since the glory days when so many possibilities lay before us."

In Japan, the past is always kind of a constant hum

Japan’s love affair with the past, however, goes far beyond people occasionally reuniting with their classmates. This is a culture where people actively seek out natsukashii experiences to add meaning to their lives. An important part to the start of the year is to send nengajo (New Year's greeting cards) to not only close family and friends, but to people they’ve encountered briefly in their lives.

Another nostalgic tradition falls on New Year’s Eve, when most Japanese stay at home and watch Kōhaku Uta Gassen, an annual TV special featuring musical performances. Even as the show increasingly focusses on contemporary pop idols, it always saves room for enka artists, who sing sentimental ballads about traditional Japanese life and are generally thought of as musicians for older generations. As Yano notes, "In Japan, the past is always kind of a constant hum."

Despite Japan’s love for modern technology, the culture places an emphasis on the past (Credit: Ke/Getty Images)

That hum even influences consumer behaviour. Despite Japan’s love for modern technology, Bellamy Hunt, a Tokyo-based British camera broker who goes by the nickname "Japan Camera Hunter", has made a living tracking down, repairing and selling rare film cameras. He says that there’s even been a recent increase in demand for black-and-white film and darkroom rental services in the country.

"To give you a sense of how popular film camera lifestyle is in Japan, there is a major national magazine called Film Camera Style, and it’s just really fancy pictures of [old] cameras and how they’re used and how to use them," Hunt said.

But it’s not that the Japanese are shunning their smartphone cameras. Hunt says that about 90% of his clients live abroad, and that part of the reason they’re drawn to Japan is because the culture places such an emphasis on the past and its relics.

"People here look after their stuff," he said. "I think we’ve lost track of that in the West a little bit." We’ve taken things for granted and not seen the true value of them."

Ice-cold glasses of mugicha (barley tea) will always remind the writer of her grandmother (Credit: Wako Megumi/Getty Images)

The concept of natsukashii is, ultimately, a reflection of how ingrained gratitude is as a value in Japanese society. The past, whether it’s full of joy or pain, is valuable. It is to be remembered and appreciated. It should comfort us. It should strengthen our relationships. As Kawakami told me, "Sharing something precious from the past can connect me, as a person, to others."

Weeks after my obaachan passed away, my family sifted through her belongings and found a small notebook containing beautiful sketches of flowers and trees. It also included meticulous notes about their characteristics.

"Did you know that obaachan used to take me on walks in the summer and teach me the names of all the flowers?" I asked my mother after examining several of the journal entries.

My mother, who has an aversion to Japan’s relentlessly hot summers, replied in amusement, "Kurushisou [seems painful]."

"It was. We would drink mugicha afterwards though," I replied.

My mother laughed with delight. "Mugicha in the summertime!" she cried. "Natsukashii."