Exactly two years ago I sent to GreeceJapan.com my first letter from Japan themed after the most prominent event of the period, hanami; looking back I see that in these over 100 letters in a very… Japanese way: most of them are seasonal, i.e. they deal with matters that at the time of their writing were central in the Japanese’s attention and often things are left back. The cherry blossoms are a telling case: I did write about the hanami, the appreciation of the blossoming of the trees (which is, in essence a targeted picnic) but I’ve left out the very fact of the meaning of the cherry blossom in the Japanese culture. And as can easily be verified by anyone visiting Japan, the Japanese don’t wait for the spring to promote the flower with the five petals and the small notch on the top of each.
As often happens in the histories of people, the promotion of “sakura” to a national symbol is far older than the creation of the Japanese state; in a way (and according to the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki”, the 8th century texts telling the creation myths of Japan), the cherry-tree is something like the tree of the original sin since Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of the sun-goddess and progenitor of the Japanese nation decided to marry the flower-princess Konohana-sakuya-hime instead of her sister, rock-princess Iwanaga-hime thus sentencing his offspring to the flowers’ impermanence. That in the ancient texts Konohana-sakuya-hime is not identified with the cherry-tree (in the same way that the Tree of Knowledge is not identified with the apple-tree) is of secondary importance: the Empress Genmei (元明) who is credited with the Nara period and with commissioning the writing of the “Kojiki” probably wanted to nod to the beliefs of her farmer subjects who viewed the cherry trees as symbols of fertility and put something Japanese in the place of the (Chinese) plum-tree.
The generalized emphasis to the flower’s short life and to its specific connection to the samurai is probably to be found later, in the Neo-Confucianism theoreticians who provided the ideological bases to the Tokugawa shoguns’ efforts to control a violently unified and constantly changing Japan. Investing on the popular sentiment of respect towards the samurai from the times when the latter were real warriors, on the Buddhist ideas about evanescence and on the well-established practice of enjoying the blossoming by society as a whole, the Neo-Confucianists created the whole mythology summarized in the expression “among flowers the cherry-blossom, among men the samurai”; a phrase that, incidentally comes from the Kabuki, the favorite form of entertainment among the townspeople i.e. the people who had every reason to see the samurai as parasites.
The idea really takes off even later, during the Meiji Period and the beginning and the development of nationalist Japan: the new Japanese soldier is, of course, the descendant of the samurai and as such it is his duty to give his life for the glory of the Japanese nation –there is a reason that there are cherry-trees in the gardens of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and that the pattern of the flower with the five petals and the small notch on the top of each appears in most Japanese nationalist symbols together with the Imperial crest’s chrysanthemum. As I have often written in these letters, many of the Japanese “traditions” were established as such in the years between 1868 and 1912, during the period that most identify with Japan’s modernization.
Do any of the above matter? Probably not. After all, the cherry blossom is now a symbol and it will remain such “until the pebbles grow into boulders lush with moss”. It will become the theme for even more songs, it will decorate even more objects, from kimono to beer cans and it will star in even more tourist campaigns. All peoples need symbols to define them and perhaps the Japanese need them even more in their effort to balance the preservation of their identity with the demand (and need) for globalization. Two days ago, passing from a metro station I saw an advertisement by one of Tokyo’s biggest department stores that just completed one more renovation: the advertisement was a text starting with “being Japanese, we appreciate the cherry blossom and its symbolism” and connected said symbolism to the store’s renovation; that the store sells, for the most part, expensive foreign brands is completely irrelevant.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.