by Stephen Sōshun

The meaning of cherry blossom: no simple matter

Both in Japan and elsewhere, cherry-blossom is commonly assumed to be the country’s national flower. In fact, and although a cherry-floret figures on every hundred-yen coin, this matter has so far received no legal ruling. And this cannot be unrelated to the fact that, in Japan, cherry-blossom forms a locus of conflicting, or contradictory, significances.

On one hand, it has occasionally been employed as a symbol – as in the West are doves (=peaceableness), and hawks(=belligerence). On the other, however, it is not as symbolic that the functions of cherry-blossom in Japanese culture are best understood. This flowering is instead better understood as something assumed to form an embodiment – and one embodying matters mutually-incompatible, at that.

Just what matter is or at least has been identified as being embodied of course depends on context. Who is beholding it, during what historical period, in what sort of location, and with what purpose, anxiety, or expectation?

Cherry-blossom in history: bright blooms shadowed by darker implications

In order to evoke the basic range of these significances, we shall consider five dissimilar periods in Japanese cultural history. In Part One, though starting from the present, we shall switch to the archaic period, and its native religious beliefs.

From there, Part Two moves forward, to the ninth century CE. Having reviewed how imported Buddhist beliefs determined the world-view of the powerful, we consider what cherry-blossom consequently embodied for them. Highly literate, members of Japan’s nobility would explore their thoughts and feelings through both prose-journals and short but intricately-suggestive poems. And it is through some examples of the latter that we shall identify how cherry-blossom affected such minds.

The subsequent two Parts introduce the pleasure-loving urban culture of the 1730s, for which the significances of flowering-cherry differed again. Finally, we shall examine that unprecedented and relentless government exploitation of cherry-blossom which colored the half-century preceding the Pacific War. Not only were these flowers peremptorily hijacked, by being distorted into a symbol employed to ‘beautify’ what was effectually state-mandated suicide. Simultaneously, they were presented as embodying the souls of those required to die in the name of imperialist expansion abroad.  

Part One: Cherry-blossom and the spirit of fertility

A people turned blossom-crazy?

            The immemorial Japanese custom of holding picnics under natural canopies provided by cherry-trees in flower is probably known almost world-wide. Every year, the country’s media treat the northward progress of the ‘front’ of initial blooming as news of national importance. Throughout the country, train-stations near celebrated viewing-locations display posters to which stickers are increasing attached, indicating present degree of flowering. And inability to participate in at least one flower-viewing gathering is one Japanese equivalent of Westerners willy-nilly celebrating Christmas alone.

            We begin early one Spring evening at the Yasukuni Shrine, which now ranks among Tokyo’s ten most popular flower-viewing venues. This is due to the immense number of cherry-trees planted throughout its precincts – these presently illuminated by pretty electric lanterns.

Social groupings of all ages have already raised heaven and earth to secure for themselves individual and jealously-guarded picnic-plots. And now such picnickers are securely established in occupation, equipped with food, indispensable alcohol, and (equally essential) portable kara-oke.

As night falls and intoxicants take effect, things get rowdier and more disorderly – this being in accordance with deeply-rooted custom. Each group’s ‘mood-makers’ will entertain their fellow-revelers with not only contemporary hit-songs but also popular skits, and risqué dances. Among all-male groups, such dances quite often involve forfeiture of clothing, piece by piece, as in strip-poker – apparently likewise custom-ordained.

            But are many of these merrymakers aware of just why this shrine should be densely surrounded by stands of cherry? For those of the post-war generations, the answer can only be negative. For, were they aware, they might well have preferred some other, less sinister, location.

Contrastingly, those born during the first quarter of the previous century may be drinking tonight in a manner more somber.

For the Yasukuni is, as we shall later discover, a shrine that is neither ordinary nor even ancient. (Nor is it accidental that what is officially designated as reflecting the ‘front’s’ having reached Tokyo should be its cherry-trees.)

Fertility and its keepers, the kami

       Now, another question: do these happy people know why, every year, they do this – or why they feel they must?

‘Oh, you know, because it’s always been done?’ is the response most commonly to be met with. And, here, ‘always’ just happens to be no careless exaggeration. For, knowingly or not, through flower-viewing participants are yearly and enthusiastically enacting a secularized version of a truly-ancient, annual fertility-rite.

Nor should this surprise us. After all, the well-guarded secret ritual that confirms accession by each new Japanese monarch, the Daijō-sai, is essentially another such.

Now, way back in Japan’s archaic period, fertility is by far the most important matter in a peasant-clan’s life. Unless young couples are fertile, the workforce available to your clan – perpetually diminished by natural death –  will not be renewed. And, should the clan’s paddy-fields, dry-fields, rivers, streams and ponds prove barren, that workforce cannot be kept adequately fed.

In their pre-modern world-view, fertility can only be a divine mystery, bestowed or withheld at will by unpredictable superhuman beings. These beings are termed ‘kami’, a word originally meaning ‘source’ and also ‘origin’, thence (by analogy with river-heads) anything elevated. Inability to control something suggests a considerable possibility that you are, if unsuspectingly, failing to deal properly with a kami.

Therefore keeping on the right side of kami is only common sense. But just how do you do that, when they’re by far from always around? For, with the end of every autumn, fertility seems to desert clan-territory. And this can only be because the kami depart, thereby withdrawing fertility.

The latter are therefore understood not to dwell permanently on the cultivatable plains, but only to deign to visit these. So the true homes of the kami are assumed to lie outside the limits of human space. While fishers’ beliefs situate those homes beyond the sea-horizon, cultivators and hunters instead – significantly – identify them in prominent local mountains.

First locate your kami!

Painful experience has already shown that the mere return of Spring is no guarantee of an abundant later harvest. Superhuman though kami obviously are, they are also seen as willful, capricious, and even capable of resentment or jealousy. Therefore the survival of your clan appears to depend on relocating your tutelary kami – for a start.

But kami cannot be expected obligingly to reenter human terrain without being offered some form of inducement to do this. So you have to go out in search of springtime evidence of their having once more left their true homes.

            Here, it may be appropriate to pause and consider the probable origin of the indigenous word denoting the cherry-tree: sakura.

One major, and more generally-accepted, hypothesis is that the stem of this word is saku, meaning ‘to put forth flowers’ To this has become attached the suffix ~ra, in Pre-modern Japanese meaning ‘something that ~s’. Thus, ‘saku-ra’ is probably best understood as having originally meant ‘that of which the characteristic most salient is its blossoming’. And, in certain Japanese dialects, saku-ra is, or long was, employed to denote just that – regardless of actual species.

Not wholly irrelevant, however, is a different explanation – although this one is not so widely accepted in scholarly circles. It instead suggests that sa~ is a joining-word, anciently meaning both ‘spirit, soul’, and also ‘botanical fertility’. And to this has become attached another joining word, ~kura.  One archaic meaning of the latter noun is ‘a place in which someone or something [important] settles.’ Thus, sa-kura may alternatively have signified ‘a lodging chosen by a spirit (and perhaps the spirit of fertility)’.    

But how do you locate your kami?

Possibly because thunder and lightning manifest themselves aloft, kami are held to be drawn by whatever towers, or stands tall. Consequently, as temporary lodgings capable of attracting and detaining restless kami, trees rising from mountain-foothills are candidates doubly-promising. Since most deciduous trees flower only after going into leaf, the opposite irresistibly suggests supernatural invasion of the relevant tree.

Among early-flowering species of fruit-tree, those indigenous to Japan are the quince, the plum, and the mountain-cherry. And the first sign that Spring will soon arrive is the flowering of the plumtrees planted down in your village. But, whatever may be the kami that thus reveal their presences, those entities no longer bring back with them fertility. For experience has anciently taught the clan-ancestors that it will as yet prove too soon to start this year’s rice-planting.

Only after plumtrees have shed their petals do you begin to scan the leafless woods skirting your local mountain. What you are now anxiously hoping to identify is that glimmering which reveals the haze-like slighter flowering of the mountain-cherry. And, once there eventually dawns a day on which this is first detected, the clan must get a move on. Though fertility may at last be back nearby, if left there on the mountain-slopes it will prove of little avail. For it has now – and crucially – to be induced to reenter the clan’s cultivated territory.

Now it’s abroad, don’t you let that kami slip away!

            So a posse of envoys dons its finest clothes, and is provisioned with whatever preserved delicacies may have survived winter. Its members also bear rolled-up straw mats, and – absolutely indispensably – a liberal quantity of rice-wine. For kami are believed to be – like their worshippers – extremely partial to alcohol and, handled aright, not unwilling to party.

Up into the afforested mountain-skirts this posse now ventures – its members half-fearful, for two reasons. Not only may the kami refuse to leave its lodging; it may also choose to punish so sacrilegious an invasion. So it has to be coaxed into first accepting human attentions, and then exerting its power for the clan’s benefit. And this will require initially wooing it, by means of feasting it and treating it to copious libations of rice-wine. Picnic-straw-matting having been laid out beneath blossom-bearing boughs, comestibles are initially offered, and then companionably consumed by the envoys themselves.

Kami, it has long been believed, favor not only rice-wine but also robust song, spirited dancing and, especially, comically-obscene behaviour. So these envoys duly get vicariously drunk, and offer traditional performance-pieces – those more ancient involving participants teasingly unveiling their genitals.

Finally, as dusk draws on, this clan-embassy will wrench or hack off a substantial branch from their host-tree. Hereby they essay to have managed a kidnapping of the kami – hopefully by now too regaled and wine-fuddled to resist. The branch is borne in state back into the village’s sacred compound, and within this set up to be worshipped. There, further offerings will daily be made, in hopes that the kami will exert its powers, rendering the village fecund. And what we earlier observed at present-day Yasukuni Shrine features almost all of these ritual essentials – barrring the final step. (Indeed, while discerningly-pruned plum-trees will develop attractively-eccentric branch-shapes, damaging a cherry-tree in any way is an unwritten contemporary taboo.) To repeat, flower-viewing has by now become almost completely secularized.

This article is part of a series:
(use the links below to access other articles)
Part 1: “Cherry-blossom and the spirit of fertility
Part 2: “Causes of Buddhist responses to cherry-blossom
Part 3: “Japan’s cherry-blossom, subversion, and ambiguity
Part 4: “The Yoshiwara-quarter: a ghetto entirely dedicated to non-procreational hetero-eros
Part 5: “Beauty claimed for State-mandated death-in-battle
Articles contributed by Stephen Sōshun

Tyas Sōsen

Tea has become a way of life, and a way of viewing the world we live in. I have learned to be more appreciative of the things we have, respectful towards other people, have more reverence for our natural environment, and am more able to be present in the current moment.

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