Japan’s cherry-blossom, subversion, and ambiguity

by Stephen Sōshun

Introduction: Ambiguous as emblem, Japan’s cherry-blossom has also signified ambiguity itself!

Here, we shall encounter Japan’s cherry-blossom as not only unstable in what it has been seen as embodying. Throughout Japanese cultural history, it has simultaneously embodied instability – instability of authority, of sex as ‘necessarily’ procreative, and of gender.

Japan’s cherry-blossom, flower-viewing, and thumbing a nose at autocracy

No less than four pre-modern military dictators – shōgun – have decreed that cherry-trees should be planted throughout Edo (now Tokyo). This has been genuinely intended to contribute to the (palliative) enjoyment of a (potentially-restive) urban populace. Also, when planted along river-banks, the roots of cherry-trees strengthen those banks against the flood-depredations so feared by the poor.

Here we now are, one mid-eighteenth-century Spring morning, beside a major metropolitan river, among a throng of gaily-dressed people. And many more are riding in pleasure-boats, including smartly-clad geisha, who (unlike courtesans) are not confined to their workplaces. Their attire, and that of their apprentices, maiko, along with their hair-ornaments, prominently figure seasonally-appropriate motifs derived from Japan’s cherry-blossom.

Some geisha do also sport a single hairpin ornamented with an ear of ripened rice – but only for ‘luck’. For not one of these urban folks has in mind either fertility (Part One) or impermanence (Part Two). Instead, they are out to forget, for a while, their highly-oppressed daily lives, and temporarily flout certain stringent sumptuary laws. Japan’s cherry-blossom season is notoriously brief, and a little flower-viewing at least is tacitly acknowledged to be everybody’s right. Thus, Japan’s cherry-blossom can embody carnival (though it is not so termed); and, in cultural function, carnival is frequently subversive.  

Japan’s cherry blossom and government-stigmatized ‘places of evil’: (1) kabuki-theatres, gender-ambiguity, and homoerotic activity

            Amid these crowds progress many wealthy family-groups, with servants impressively in train. The wives and daughters, and even presentable female upper-servants, are all proudly attired in the most up-to-date fashions. Like those of geisha, these modes of dress derive from a source perhaps surprising: stars of the phenomenally-popular kabuki-theatre-troupes. Why surprising? Because those stars are – as the law decrees they must be – in biological sex, all male. And those that play female roles are almost eerily feminine – and yet extremely popular, winning ardent fans of both sexes.

A man convincingly performing a woman’s role is, for a start, surely a destabilizing phenomenon: what is exactly what? This phenomenon is also itself unstable, since the behavior required is mimicry, which at any point may cease to convince.

Why should we note this connection? Because the one botanical species that the essentially-plebeian kabuki visual aesthetic insistently incorporates – in scenery, hair-ornaments, and fabric-design – is … Japan’s cherry-blossom. And the kabuki-repertoire comprises a considerable body of plays linking saku-ra to ambiguity – of social status, intent, identity, and/or gender. There is, after all, something distinctly louche – even a little insane – about the sheer extravagance of this transient foam-like flowering.

All such matters are anathema to the control-obsessed military junta that, from Edo Castle, glowers out over the unruly populace. Unsurprisingly, the former has issued edict after edict condemning kabuki-theatres, as ‘places of evil’, and dubbing their performers ‘flood-plain scum’. And of course members of the junta’s own, warrior-, caste are strictly forbidden from frequenting such pollutant haunts. To little avail: despite these injunctions, warriors too will attend kabuki-performances, but incognito – and, if possible, watch from well-screened boxes. They will also visit beautiful young stars in their dressing-rooms, or send messages, to invite those fascinatingly-fragile flowers out.

Japan’s cherry-blossom and the lure of the forbidden

And not just for the pleasure of their conversation, or the disturbing thrill of great glamor combined with defiling outcaste-status. In the male culture of pre-modern Japan, bisexuality is the accepted norm, both ‘boy-aversion’ and ‘woman-aversion’ being regarded as abnormal. Consequently, theatre-owners expect their younger stars to confirm wealthy patrons in their fandom by also being available for erotic dalliance. Many of those tea-houses that always spring up around newly-erected kabuki-theatres can be reached from their auditoria by special passages. Patrons use such tea-houses for assignations with favorite actors, and those passages to attend such meetings safe from prying eyes. For, while mere merchants are free to disport themselves as they like, high-ranking government-officials are not. What would be seriously scandalous is not, however, the man-on-man aspect, but, rather, the gross discrepancy in social rank involved. Just as cherry-blossom is vulnerable to weather-caprices, these actors’ base status affords no protection against waning of popularity or government-persecution. Small wonder that the fantasy-world evoked by kabuki-drama has so often been drawn to the theme of cherry-blossom. (And one dance-piece figures the spirit of cherry-blossom – in pursuit of revenge, and initially disguised as what but a courtesan? See Part Four.)

Japan’s cherry-blossom, and beautiful trans-gendered youths

And now, back to the blossom-bright river-banks. In this boat here is being poled along the high-ranking abbot ruling the wealthy mother-house of a powerful Buddhist sect. He appears to be intimately sharing a single rice-wine cup with a beautiful girl – conduct shocking in any Buddhist cleric. But is that not a youth, dressed and made up as a maiden of quality, and acquitting himself most expertly?

Securing for flower-viewing such a companion – a chigo (page or catamite) – shows exquisite taste on the part of the abbot. For, the infertile femininity of chigo fading after puberty, they are poignant artifacts that cherry-blossom is regarded as embodying.

            Now, here is a large and smartly-designed riverside tea-house – also a ‘place of evil’ – specializing in providing indentured juvenile male-prostitutes. These employees have likewise been trained, coiffed and dressed to give an impression of being girls. In many of its reception-rooms, well-stipended warriors are (illegally) steering the rendezvous towards anal entry – brutal or (sometimes) mutually enjoyed. Advancing age, or hemorrhoids, or a government-crackdown, will eventually leave the prey in each case out of a job. So these boys are well aware of the fact that their charms, too, are blossoms all too soon to fall.

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.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Merle

    I have been following all the beautiful cherry blossoms in Japan. My co workers and my self will be visiting Japan just to see the blossoms and do some shopping.

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