The Sakura cherry blossoms are arguably one of the most famous representations of Japan. Images of the Sakura can be found on both historic and modern products, ranging from printed screens to cell phone covers (McClellan, 2005). The famous poet, Motoori claimed “If one should ask you concerning the spirit of a true Japanese, point to the wild cherry blossoms glowing in the sun.” (McClellan, 2005) He is not the only one to make such an assertion, throughout the years, both foreign and Japanese scholars have often expressed a similar sentiment, drawing ties to Sakura cherry blossoms and the “fleeting moments of fading beauty.” (Sosnoski, 1996)
However, the love for Sakura often manifests around early April, when the blossoms start to bloom in most of the major cities in Japan (McClellan, 2005). From then on, most families participate in an event called hanami, where friends, families, colleges, and lovers gather beneath the majestic, blooming branches while eating snacks and drinking alcohol.
By looking at the Japanese love for Sakura cherry blossoms, one can argue that the very act of hanami represents one of the truest cores of Japanese society, the love for aesthetical beauty and the attachment to a wonderfully short, fleeting life. (McClellan, 2005)
One of the first mentions of Sakura cherry blossoms was in the Kojiki and Man’Yoshi 8th century anthropologies of poems. At that time, there was no distinction between the native Chinese ume plum trees and the native Japanese cherry trees (Choy, 1995). Together, the Koijiki and Man’Yoshi had 401 poems that depicted and praised the beauty of the Sakura cherry blossoms (Choy, 1995). In fact, the “remarkable qualities of the cherry blossom trees’ blooming inspired blossom viewing rituals and traditions that the Japanese emperors and their court had establish by the 9th century, called hanami.” (McClellan, 2005)
Since Sakura blossoms have typically been associated with women, hanami was not only to just to view beautiful flowers; it is also to view beautiful women. Several authors claim the beauty of the Sakura and the women is one in the same (McClellan, 2005). For the next thousand years, hanami developed and evolved into an inseparable part of Japanese cultures as Sakura cherry blossoms appeared in countless media throughout Japan (Abe, 2008).
Why exactly to the Japanese have such attachments to the Sakura flower?
The attraction to Sakura cherry blossoms is two-fold. One is for the natural beauty that these indigenous flowers possess (Spacey, 2012). While Sakura is technically a cherry blossom tree, the particular Sakura cherry trees that are used for hanami are grown for their flowers, rather than their fruit (Choy, 1995). To Japan, the beautiful and brilliant flowers seem to carry a greater priority than an edible fruit (McClellan, 2005).
The second attraction to the Sakura cherry blossoms has to do with their short life span: only about 10 ten days (Choy, 1995). Sakura blossoms often symbolize a life well lived: short, fleeting, and beautiful. One cannot view Sakura without acknowledging both the splendor and the pain of such a transient life. The love and nation-wide appreciation for Sakura is “not just about the beauty of these flowers, but also about the sadness and pain. They reflect the complicated feelings that spring and the Sakura evoke for the Japanese people.” (Onishi, 2013)
This acceptance of both the beauty and the pain has helped shape Japanese culture during key moments throughout history. For example, Sakura played a key role in militarism; since Sakura blossoms typically preach the message “happiness does not last forever, and no one lives for eternity,” they have been often linked to the beautiful act of dying on the battlefield (Onishi, 2013) The author Namiko Abe writes “from the way they quickly and gracefully fall, Sakura were used by militarism to beautify the death of the suicide unites. To samurai in the ancient times or soldiers during World Wars, there was no greater glory than dying on the battlefield like scattered cherry blossoms.” (Abe, 2008)
Sakura blossoms were typically seen as the ideal model that warriors ought to adopt, to live brilliantly and die young.
In recent years, the fleeting nature of the Sakura that children have grown up learning about in yearly hanami parties has manifested in a new way: through excessive use of skin care, especially anti-wrinkle products. “Japan boasts the world’s largest skin-care market per capita,” writes skin-care specialist Keisuke, “Japanese women use and spend more on skin-care products than any other woman in the world.” (Keisuke, 2012)
Japan has mostly moved passed the ages of samurais, suicide units, soldiers in constant contact, or war. Things have settled down. In fact, through modern medicine and developments in sanitary, food, transportation, and housing, Japanese nationals are typically living longer than before.
Life is no longer fading; beauty is. Japan’s past two generations have often been unable to relate to the message Sakura used to carry, ‘live brilliantly and die young.’ However, year after year, when people gather and do hanami, sitting underneath a canopy of glorious branches, they must watch the flowers wither and die, within a couple days.
This yearly reminder about the fragility of beauty has only made a large percentage of Japanese women turn to skin care products, to keep their skin looking youthful and healthy (Keisuke, 2012).
Despite contrary believe, this recent addition to skin care products does not go against the teachings of the Sakura. “Cherry blossoms inspire us because they tell the great truth that life is mysterious and does not last forever, but that is what makes life so precious.” (Onishi, 2013) After being reminded on a yearly basis how beauty eventually fades, it is only natural to turn to some sort of product that might extend beauty, if only for a couple years. Women have no illusion that they can make beauty last forever. If presented with the opportunity for eternal youth and beauty, I believe that Japanese women would turn down the offer.
Back in 2010, scientists at the Japanese company Riken Nishina Center for Accelerated-Based Science created a strand of Sakura cherry blossom trees that “bloomed in all four seasons (indoors), keeping its flower for longer (outdoors), producing both bigger and more blossoms under a wider range of temperature than any existing breeds (outdoors).” (Ryall, 2010)
Since 1990s, Japanese scientists had noticed a decrease in the yearly spring Sakura blossoms. Global warming was blamed; Dr. Tomoko Abe, head of the Radiation Biology Team at Riken claimed “Cherry trees require a minimum of 8,000 hour of low temperatures over the winter to produce the optimum blossoms, but as Japan gets warmer, we are falling short of that figure.” Responding to the natural fear that the Sakura cherry blossoms might stop blooming in the near future, Riken created a new breed of cherry blossoms by using carbon ions to induce mutations in previous cherry blossom specimens.
The resulting tree naturally bloomed both in autumn and spring, produced “three times more flowers than the regular varieties, and its spring bloom lasted twice as long.” (Riken Research, 2010)
However, in the hanami season directly after this new Keiou-Zakura 13 ‘Nishina Otome’ tree was produced, the Sakura cherry blossom output was normal. A national crisis was averted; people gradually stopped talking about the fear of a disappearing Sakura blossoms.Now, three years after this super-Sakura cherry tree’s invention, is has been largely ignored.
When presented with a tree that naturally produced three times as many flowers, bloomed bi-annually, and had blossoms that lived for over 20 days, twice as long as the average Sakura cherry blossom’s lifespan, the Japanese people chose to reject it (Choy, 1995).
That is the essence of Sakura. Japanese people do not want a beauty that lasts forever; they want those ‘feeling moments of fading beauty;’ they want those “moment you want to grab onto and hold tightly, and squeeze all the goodness out of so you have something left behind to hold onto in your mind, when the hanami season is over.” (Spacey, 2012)
What does this say about the love for hanami?
If “Sakura are synonymous with the transitory nature of life itself and the brief duration of youthful beauty,” (Sosnoski, 1996) then is hanami an annual renewal of the vows to “remember that life is short and that each day must be cherished”? (Onishi, 2013) The act of hanami, drinking alcohol and eating snacks in pleasant company, underneath the majestic Sakura cherry blossoms, is an integrated part of Japanese culture. It keeps Japanese people grounded in the core values of their society and teaches each generation that there is nothing more honorable than a well-lived life (McClellan, 2005)
As a result, by looking at the Japanese love for Sakura cherry blossoms, one can argue that the very act of hanami represents one of the truest cores of Japanese society, the love for aesthetical beauty and the attachment to a wonderfully short, fleeting life. (McClellan, 2005)
Riken Research. (2010, February 12). Retrieved April 30, 2013, from New cherry blossom tree blooms all seasons: http://www.rikenresearch.riken.jp/eng/roundup/6218.html
Abe, N. (2008, August). About.com : Japan. Retrieved April 29, 2013, from Relationships with Nature: Cherry Blossoms: http://japanese.about.com/od/japanesecultur1/a/031900.htm
Choy, L. K. (1995). Japan: Between Myth and Reality. World Scientific Pub Co Inc.
Crosley, S. (2011, February). W Magazine. Retrieved April 29, 2013, from A Wrinkle in Time: http://www.wmagazine.com/beauty/2011/02/3509_beauty_myth#ixzz2RvXDdBzZ
Keisuke. (2012, November 16). Ibuki Magazine: Asian Inspired. Retrieved April 30, 2013, from Japanese Skincare Obsession: http://www.ibukimagazine.com/japanese-skincare-obsession/
McClellan, A. (2005). The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration. Charlestown: Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
Onishi, Y. (2013, January). Kyoto Obu Tea Plantation. Retrieved April 29, 2013, from Cherry Blossoms: The Bittersweet Quality of Japan in Bloom: http://obubutea.com/4275/cherry-blossoms-the-bittersweet-quality-of-japan-in-bloom/
Ryall, J. (2010, February 17). The Telegraph. Retrieved April 30, 2013, from Japanese scientists create cherry tree that blossoms all year round: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/7254354/Japanese-scientists-create-cherry-tree-that-blossoms-all-year-round.html
Sosnoski, D. (1996). Introduction to Japanese Culture. North Claredon: Tuttle Publishing .
Spacey, J. (2012, August 19). Japan Talk. Retrieved April 30, 2013, from Why Japan Loves Sakura (Cherry Blossoms): http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/why-Japan-loves-cherry-blossoms
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