Since mid-February, cherry blossom madness has gripped the country. In ¥100 shops, Valentine’s Day decorations were swiftly taken down to be replaced with wave after wave of white and pink sakura-themed merchandise. From office supplies to beer, everything is sakura-themed.
Big names are in on this obviously profitable merchandising gimmick: Starbucks and McDonald’s both have their sakura-themed heavily sugared coffee drinks. Red Bull has a sakura energy drink and Asahi has their sakura beer.
The ¥100 shops have branded every item imaginable with the ubiquitous flower. It is actually quite a nice sight. Walking down crowded almost-spring streets still permeated with a gray coldness of a mild winter slowly receding, is now being dissipated with the delicate blossoms painted in the soft pastel of a promised spring.
As far as a theme goes, it’s one that I can get behind. Who doesn’t want to be softly assaulted by such a subtle beauty every time you walk out your door?
But my question is, what’s the hype about?
Obviously cherry blossoms are beautiful, but are they more beautiful than other blossoming trees? Take the plum tree. It actually blooms first, heralding in the spring weather. It also lasts longer than the brief week that cherry blossoms do, and on top of that plum blossoms smell wonderfully. Some would argue plum blossoms are even more beautiful with their bolder, richer pinks, paling the cherry blossom in comparison.
So why are the Japanese super-hype about cherry blossoms?
Off-hand I asked that question to a Japanese teacher at my school. What I thought was going to be a light-hearted discussion about the transient beauty of a delicate flower with maybe a tongue-in-cheek comment about the overwhelming power of Japanese consumerism, turned into an office-wide discussion about the history of Japan, samurai, and WWII.
Not exactly what I expected.
Which is perfect because I really appreciate the well-thought out answer instead of the simple, “We like it because it’s kawaii.”
Without overturning every rock in the history garden, I’m going to attempt to explain some of what reached my brain between translations and trusty Google.
So let’s begin a few hundred years back in the eighth century when plum trees were the blossoms of choice. Like the Chinese, where plum trees are native, the Japanese too favored the rich color of the plum blossom. The color is a rich pink-red, much bolder than the color of the popular cherry blossoms of today.
But during this time when China was at its peak cultural, economic, and military influence, the Japanese empress felt threatened by such a presence possibly over-influencing her own country, so she sought a way to show Japan’s cultural autonomy (Rolfes).
Thus in 712, one of the earliest written references of the cherry blossom was recorded in the Kojiki. According to Rolfes, this was used to intentionally sway the Japanese aristocracy to emphasize the cherry blossom over the Chinese plum. This book described what came to be known as Yamato-Damashii, or “Japanese spirit.”
Japanese spirit can mean many things from distinct Japanese wisdom and ability to the bravery and valor of the samurai. It has transformed and evolved, but the cherry blossom as its symbol has endured.
One of the most iconic representations of Japanese spirit are the samurais who ruled under the shogun from around 794 to 1185. They strove to live each day with a noble purity, honoring both their ancestors and the emperor.
At a glance, samurai with their Japanese spirit and cherry blossoms have something poetically somber in common: a fleeting strength and beauty that is suddenly ended in its prime.
Most cherry blossoms only bloom for about a week. To everyone’s delight, the highly anticipated flowers suddenly appear in a flurry of color each spring. Then, at the peak of their short-lived beauty, the flowers fall at once and die.
Like the cherry blossom, the samurai had to be willing to cut his life short at its prime. With no small help from Japan’s Buddhist roots, the samurai needed to look at this transient life as the natural order of things.
Even when the age of the samurai was replaced with the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), it was stressed that all the soldiers be imbued with the Japanese spirit, furthering the theme of a fragile and impermanent life.
This theme of sacrificing yourself for the sake of your country is epitomized with the kamikaze pilots during WWII. The planes were emblazoned with paintings of the short-lived blossoms and the already famous cherry trees planted at the Yasukuni Shrine, came to symbolize a soldier for every fallen flower.
After the utter destruction of WWII, cherry trees were planted far and wide, lining the newly westernized straight streets. The variety that we see now was created by a gardener in Edo’s Somei-mura village in 1730 to satiate the growing desire for a cherry tree to bear more flowers more quickly. Thus, the Somei Yoshino variety now accounts for about 80% of all cherry trees in Japan.
Today cherry blossoms are obviously still revered, but in the 2016 way of rampant consumerism and Japanese traditionalism. There are still hanami, flower viewing parties, and poetry and art still celebrate this brief event in spring. But now there is merchandise to help you remember this fleeting moment.
Even though it will be weeks until the trees begin to bloom, the excitement is high. People are planning their parties under the blossoms and hoping that school closing ceremonies will perfectly coincide with their opening. For the graduating students, as this stage of their lives comes to a tearful close, another one blooms right before their eyes.
Rolfes, Ellen. For Hundreds of Years, Cherry Blossoms Are Matter of Life and Death. PBS, 12 April 2013. Web. 7 March 2016.
Somei Yoshino: the Quintessence of Sakura. Go Tokyo. Web. 7 March 2016.
Super great teachers at my school. Lecture. 7-11 March 2016.