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Cherry blossoms – celebrated in Japan for centuries and gifted to Americans – are an appreciation of impermanence and spring

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Cherry blossoms mark the beginning of spring. Various festivals are regularly organized in California, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., to celebrate the bloom of cherry trees.

The blossoms, however, are short-lived and usually fall within a week. Indeed, “sakura,” as the cherry tree is known in Japanese, is a recognized symbol of impermanence in Japan and beyond.

Every year, many people all around Japan gather under the cherry trees in parks and gardens for a spring picnic to watch the blossoms fall while they chat with their companions over seasonal drinks and snacks. Such gatherings are called “hanami,” literally meaning “viewing the flowers.”

As a scholar of premodern Japanese literature and culture, I was introduced to the custom of viewing cherry blossoms early on in my education. It is an ancient ritual that has been celebrated and written about in Japan for centuries and continues to be an indispensable element of welcoming spring. In the U.S., the tradition of hanami started with the first cherry trees being planted in Washington D.C. in 1912 as a gift of friendship from Japan.

Poetry about nature

The custom of viewing blooming trees in spring arrived in Japan from the Asian continent. Watching blooming plum trees, often by moonlight, as a symbol of strength, vitality and end of winter was practiced in China since antiquity. It was adopted in Japan sometime in the eighth century.

Poetic examples of blooming plums, or “ume” in Japanese, are found in “Man’yōshū,” or a “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, which dates to the eighth century.

Scholar of East Asian Literatures Wiebke Denecke explains that classical Japanese poets wrote poetry about plum blossoms when they were in season. Their compositions shaped Japanese court poetry, or “waka” in Japanese, which is rooted in nature and its constant seasonal cycle.

However, it is the sakura, not plum trees, that occupies a special place in Japanese culture. Imperial waka anthologies compiled in Japan between 905 and 1439 C.E. usually contain more spring poems composed about cherry blossoms than plum blossoms.

Central to waka composition

The first cherry blossom viewing was held by Emperor Saga in 812 C.E. and soon became a regular event at the imperial court, often accompanied by music, food and writing poetry.

Cherry blossoms became one of the regular topics of waka composition. In fact, I started studying Japanese poetry thanks to a sakura-themed poem written by a classical female poet, Izumi Shikibu, who is believed to have actively composed waka around 1000 C.E. The poem is prefaced with its author’s memory about her ex-lover wishing to see the cherry blossoms again before they fall.

tō o koyo
saku to miru ma ni
chirinu beshi
tsuyu to hana to no
naka zo yo no naka

Come quickly!
As soon as they start to open
they must fall.
Our world dwells
in dew on top of the cherry blossoms.

The poem is not the most famous example of waka about cherry blossoms in premodern Japanese poetry, but it contains layers of traditional imagery symbolizing impermanence. It emphasizes that once cherry blossoms bloom, they are destined to fall. Witnessing the moment of their fall is the very purpose of hanami.

Dew is usually interpreted as a symbol of tears in waka, but it can be also read more erotically as a reference to other bodily fluids. Such an interpretation reveals the poem to be an allusion to a romantic relationship, which is as fragile as evaporating dew on soon-falling cherry blossoms; it does not last long, so it should be appreciated while it exists.

The poem can also be interpreted more generally: Dew is a symbol of human life, and the fall of cherry blossoms a metaphor for death.

Militarized by the Empire of Japan

The notion of falling cherry blossoms was used by the Empire of Japan, a historic state that existed from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 until the enactment of the Constitution of Japan in 1947. The empire is known for the colonization of Taiwan and annexation of Korea to expand its territories.

Sasaki Nobutsuna, a scholar of Japanese classics with strong ties to the imperial court, was a supporter of the empire’s nationalistic ideology. In 1894, he composed a lengthy poem, “Shina seibatsu no uta,” or “The Song of the Conquest of the Chinese,” to coincide with the First Sino-Japanese war, which lasted from 1894 to 1895. The poem compares falling cherry blossoms to the sacrifice of Japanese soldiers who fall in battles for their country and emperor.

Commodification of the season

In contemporary Japan, the cherry blossoms are celebrated by many members of society, not only the imperial court. Blooming around the Lunar New Year celebrated in premodern Japan for centuries, they are symbolic of new beginnings in all areas of life.

In the contemporary era, vendors have commodified the cherry blossoms, selling sakura-flavored tea, coffee, ice cream, drinks or cookies, turning the image of blooming sakura into a seasonal brand. Weather forecasts track the cherry trees’ bloom to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate in the ancient ritual of viewing sakura.

The obsession with cherry blossoms may seem trivial, but hanami gathers people during an era when much communication is conducted virtually and remotely, uniting family members, friends, coworkers and sometimes even strangers, as happened to me when I lived in Japan.

Viewing sakura is also evidence of modern Japan’s unique relationship with its own history. At the same time, it is a reminder that impermanence is possibly the only constant in life.

Two rows of tall trees with clusters of pink flowers on either side of a pathway.

Today, cherry blossoms are celebrated in spring all around the world, encouraging the appreciation of impermanence through observation of nature.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Małgorzata (Gosia) K. Citko-DuPlantis, University of Tennessee

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Małgorzata (Gosia) K. Citko-DuPlantis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.