Have you heard about the free umbrella system they have in Tokyo? It’s delightful. There are clear plastic umbrellas sitting out front of shops all over Tokyo, and when it starts to rain, you take one and use it until the rain stops. When you’re done, you leave it out front of another shop for the next person. It’s a truly Japanese system, one that relies on honour, honesty, and respect.

At least, it would be if Tokyo actually had a free umbrella system, but it doesn’t.

The free umbrella system is something I unknowingly invented in my mind when I misunderstood what a guy was telling me as he showed me around Tokyo a few years ago. Some umbrellas are left in front of shops because they are cheap enough that people treat them as disposables, however most of them actually belong to someone shopping inside. Sadly, I didn’t figure this out until long after I returned home. I spent an entire week putting the “system” to good use. It rained a lot while I was there, so many an umbrella I did take.

The alternate Tokyo, where the free umbrella system was real, seemed like such a helpful place, a trusting place. Whenever the clouds opened and the rain came, it was as if Tokyo itself also opened, extending a neighborly hand. Here friend, have this portable shelter, it’s on me. The city was saying I care about you. Looking back on it now, I made an assumption that turned me into a prolific umbrella thief (or at the very least an umbrella mover whose services were simultaneously always fulfilled and never requested), but is the idea of a temporarily free umbrella that implausible?

Lately, it’s been raining quite a bit in Vancouver, and I can’t help but think about the free umbrella system that never existed. Visitors to our city are often a little bummed when they come in the spring or fall, and find themselves indoors a lot because of the rain. I think something as simple as many donated umbrellas placed out front of shops, meant for sharing, could change people’s relationship to our city. Visitors would come and feel welcomed, not only by the people, but by the city itself. Perhaps they’d leave with a memory of the umbrellas rather than the rain.

Header image: Jessie Null
All other images: Jeff Hamada