“Cherry blossoms, oh cherry blossoms
Across the spring skies
As far as the eyes can see
Fragrant in the air
Come now, come now
Let’s go and see them…”
So say the lyrics of the traditional Japanese folksong often sung in international settings as the unofficial national anthem. Every year Japan waits with feverish anticipation the first flushes of cherry blossom sakura. The Japanese Bureau of Metereology and the public religiously trace the “cherry blossom front” sakura zensen as it moves up the archipelago with the increasingly warm weather that heralds Spring. This year it was reported that the cherry blossoms were the earliest they had ever been in over a thousand years of recorded history!
Any casual foreign observer can appreciate that cherry blossoms are pretty but why does the whole nation go ga-ga for these pink bits of floral candy floss? Since ancient times, the Japanese have created rituals that sought to renew life through contact with nature, which also evolved into communal entertainment and social release. Although the custom of partying under the plum blossoms is thought to have originated as an aristocratic pastime in the Nara period (710-794), by the Heian period (794-1185), a broad shift away from a Sino-centric view of culture allowed the indigenous cherry blossom Prunus serrulata, to take the front seat in the local imagination. The ritual was then adopted in samurai society in the medieval period before it filtered down to everyday citizens in the Edo period (1600-1857).
Cherry blossoms have thus been celebrated in Japanese literature, poetry and art for centuries. They are symbols for phenomena as varied as: fallen soldiers, friendships and new beginnings. They even appear on the reverse side of the 100 yen coin. The meaning of the cherry blossom is multi-layered. In particular, Japanese classical poetry which has always displayed extreme sensitivity to the transience of nature and the passing of the seasons, has foregrounded the flower as the absolute harbinger of Spring. One of the main reasons for this acute observance is that natural change came to act as a metaphor for the transience of life and the uncertainties of this world; a view that was reinforced by the Buddhist belief in the evanescence of all things. The short enigmatic emergence of cherry blossoms in Spring is therefore seen as more than just a chance to admire some pretty petals; it is a meditation on life, death, renewal and the ephemeral nature of being.
The act of observing and appreciating cherry blossom in season is called hanami which in English simply translates as “flower viewing”. Therefore cherry blossom is denoted as the quintessential “flower” generically by Japanese. It is a massively sociable affair which takes place across the whole country with friends, families and colleagues equipped with picnic boxes and blankets, gathering together under the unfurling blossoms to eat, drink and be merry. That has been the 1000 year old custom that has continued unabated until last year when the pandemic struck Japan. Now there are huge signs warning the public that it is forbidden to gather together in groups and partake of an activity that is almost genetically encoded. The Japanese for the most part are very pragmatic and are highly conscious of maintaining social harmony at all costs so there has not been the now feared parties of drunken revelers along highly conspicuous sites like the Kamo river in Kyoto. Nevertheless the new rules have not stopped people from stepping out to admire this important symbol of pink resilience all over the city. For everyone including me, this inevitable marker of brighter times has had a deep, extra resonance in 2021.
Sasuga hana chiru/ni miren wa nakari keri
When cherry blossoms scatter…