Human Flower Project
Under the Cherry Blossoms
Masashi Yamaguchi, who directs the magnificent floral website Plants and Japan, offers an introduction to Japan’s lush cherry blossom customs.
Thank you, Masashi!
Tokyo residents eat and drink under the cherry trees
at Ueno Park April 10. The beloved Sakura were
expected to draw nearly 250,000 people to the park
on that Sunday alone.
Photo: Itsuo Inouye, for AP
By Masashi Yamaguchi
The Japanese love of SAKURA—cherry blossoms – is hard to explain because it is so intimate a flower for the Japanese, with many associations.
In Japanese mythology, the goddess of Mount Fuji KONOHANASAKUYAHIME (meaning “the goddess who can revive dead flowers”) is symbolized by a cherry blossom. It is said that she scattered seeds and decorated her mountain with the flowers in spring.
The word SAKURA itself seems to come from SAKU, which means “bloom” in Japanese. Japanese people in olden days might have associated “bloom” with cherry blossom flowers since their arrival means spring has come to Japan
Although the floral symbol of the Japanese royal family is KIKU (chrysanthemum), the cherry blossom is the national flower. HANA means “flower” in Japanese but, especially in traditional literature, HANA often is used to mean SAKURA.
The Japanese enjoy parties of drinking, eating, and singing under cherry trees in spring, a custom called HANAMI (cherry blossom viewing).
There are many more cherry blossom customs:
SAKURAGARI (cherry blossom hunting): going to mountains for cherry blossom viewing.
YOZAKURA (cherry blossom of night): viewing cherry blossoms after sundown.
SAKURA FUBUKI (cherry blossom storm): when cherry petals are scattered like snow by the wind.
HANAMIZAKE (cherry blossom viewing and Japanese sake): to enjoy drinking while viewing cherry blossoms.
SAKURA SAKU (cherry blossom blooms)
SAKURA CHIRU (when cherry blossom ends its blooming): this phrase means to pass or fail an exam, an expression of “flash language” among students.
Now, in early April, cherry trees are in full bloom all over Japan. It is said that more than 90 % of cherry trees now blossoming are the same cultivar: SOMEIYOSHINO. At the end of the Edo Period (early 1800’s), a breeder living in the town of SOMEI bred this cherry tree and sold it as YOSHINO, naming it for an area in Nara Prefecture famous for its cherry trees. Thus this particular cultivar came to be called SOMEIYOSHINO. It has an amazing characteristic: all the flowers on one tree bloom at the same time. Also, its flowers bloom before its leaves sprout. We can enjoy perfect mats of flowers. Because it cannot bear seeds, people multiplied this tree from cuttings. In other words, all the present-day SOMEIYOSHINO have been cloned, grown from cuttings.
YOZAKURA—Night viewing of the cherry blossoms, April 8, at the
Imperial Palace moats in Tokyo—one of the major cherry blossom-
viewing spots in Japan.
Photo: Toshiyuki Aizawa, for Reuters
After the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Japanese government planted this cultivar in schools and official facilities to promote Japanese nationalism. This use of the cherry trees is hard to explain. The cherry tree makes its beautiful display only for a short time and then it drops off its petals, as if to die. This floral behavior was considered “brave,” like the Samurai spirit, by the Japanese. The government taught children that they should behave like cherry blossoms. It is true that the Japanese have been fond of cherry blossoms, but it is also true that this devotion was enhanced by the government after the Meiji Period.
Cherry Blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial
in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Ron Edmonds, for AP
The government also utilized SOMEIYOSHINO for promoting international friendship. In 1912, the governor of Tokyo sent 3,000 trees of this cultivar to Washington, D.C., as a token of friendship between Japan and the United States. After the Japanese made Taiwan and Korea its colonies, the Japanese government also planted SOMEIYOSHINO trees in those countries, as a way to force Japanese culture on the Taiwanese and Koreans. Thus, the story of SOMEIYOSHINO has two aspects; this cultivar was utilized for enhancing Japanese domination and for promoting friendship with other countries.
The Japanese are as fond of cherry blossoms today as in earlier times. In Japan the new school term begins in April, so for students the cherry blossoms, blooming at the opening ceremonies of schools, symbolize the new semester. For adults, cherry blossoms symbolize the blossoms of their youth.
Even these days, Japanese pop singers make songs on SAKURA, and such songs become huge hits every year. It seems that Japanese love of cherry blossoms will continue forever.