THE SIGNIFICANCES OF JAPAN’S CHERRY BLOSSOMS: PART FIVE

beauty claimed for State-mandated death-in-battle

Section One

by Stephen Sōshun

Blossom, blossom, everywhere – yet none who pause to think

       Here is the crowded playground of a Japanese middle school for boys, one early April day in the early 1930s. If they already know one another, these pupils run, or tussle with each other, under blossom-bearing boughs. For – as had thirty years back become usual throughout Japan – stands of speedily-maturing somé-i Yoshino saku-ra border the entire school-grounds. It is the beginning of a fresh school year; and how very civilized the country’s new-broom government must be! For it has chosen to time this start to coincide with the efflorescence of such intoxicating natural beauty!

            These crop-headed youths look very smart in their becomingly-high-collared black school-uniforms (inspired, it happens, by officer-garb of the Prussian military). And, cast in bas-relief on each of their brass tunic- and cuff-buttons, what do we see but a single cherry-floret? This detail is, we might assume, an elegant, aesthetic touch that is globally-unique, and so characteristically Japanese.

            Forming an elite, most of these boys will go on to win places at higher schools, and then state-funded universities. And what will they find when they have been enrolled in these institutions? The buildings housing them, and also their student-dormitories, will all prove to have been similarly enclosed by stands of saku-ra. And the same, perhaps ‘as it happens’, goes for the parade-grounds of state-funded military academies, bases, and training-schools for cadets.

Why, exactly, plant so many cherry-trees in these particular locations?

            But isn’t there something a little odd, here?

On one hand, several other arboreal species have played major roles in the pre-modern cultures of both China and Japan. For example, the pine has long, long been prized for its auspicious longevity, and the permanence of its needles’ hue. The cryptomeria and the paulownia have traditionally been valued for their fine-grained, lasting timber. The willow has been cherished for its delicate beauty of spring fronds, and venerable literary-Chinese association with happy reunions. The bamboo has been esteemed for its perennial self-renewal and freshness. Of old has the plum been loved for its powerful yet refined fragrance, and valiant – and relatively-lasting winter’s-end – flowering. The wisteria has been admired for the august hue of its blossom, and consequent association with exalted rank and power. And the maple has anciently inspired considerable regard for the comparatively- prolonged and many-colored splendor of its fall-turned foliage.

On the other hand, the saku-ra flowers erratically – at best for but a fortnight – and is virtually without scent. And none of what we have previously identified the cherry as embodying seems appropriate to training bureaucrats and commissioned officers. Wouldn’t a judicious mixture of these other species have been more appropriate as adornment to institutions of education and training?

Is this perhaps the answer?

Now, most of these boys are extremely proud of the design of the buttons attached to their uniforms. For most of their fathers are either career-officers or else provincial but elite bureaucrats. And those fathers’ formal wear is characterized by more-elaborated versions of these features, on regimental badges and insignias of office. Moreover, their medals (often posthumously-awarded), and other state-bestowed tokens of distinction, all incorporate depictions of saku-ra-leaves and flowers.

Again, these schoolboys are extremely likely to have heard, sung at family gatherings or radio-broadcast, the following jaunty military marching-song. Its lyrics were composed by an army-cadet then voluntarily enrolled in a military training-school. And it was first publicly performed (in 1911) at a memorial ceremony for alumni war-dead. Becoming from that time on much admired, its spontaneous performance has apparently spread among the ‘Imperial’ forces. More recently, it has been by various singers successively recorded and marked, under several different SP labels. Couched in a brusque pre-modern Literary Japanese, the lyrics almost perfectly observe a hallowed, repeated segmentation, into 7-+-5 syllables. Below are excerpted four of its ten stanzas:

The true colors of our infantry

the scarlet of our collars  so like a mass of blossom!
a storm of petals whirled along  above the Sumida[1]
if you are born a scion of  this ancient, sacred land
maintain the spaced-out skirmish-line[2]  and so, like blossom, scatter[3]
….

ignoble flight can never tempt  our marching-code behold!
onward!  onward!  onward still!  until we reach that point
from which we can propel ourselves  grenades in flesh-clad form

what decides the outcome  won by our force entire
will be that final moment when  we fall upon our foe  
this is when our enemies  must reel before our might
exert we now our utmost strength  if but like blossom to fall!

but oh supremely valorous  was he of our infantry
so when his hundredth day[4] comes round  as bosom friends we’ll meet    
to share our treasured memories  of him whose deeds we’ll toast
the scarlet of his collar now  found in that dish alone

            For more concerning cherry-blossom as flowers beautifying voluntary death, please see Section Two of Part Five.

beauty claimed for State-mandated death-in-battle

Section Two

And yet there is much, much more to come.

From solace to embodiment

Among these school-children, some will survive participation in those ill-advised overseas military ‘interventions’ upon which the state will soon re-embark. In their cups, and upon singing or hearing popular songs that poignantly re-employ this same metaphor, they will helplessly weep. That metaphor is provided, of course, by naturally-dropping saku-ra-petals, as beautiful in their inevitable falling as in their brief glory. And it evokes mingled love and admiration for dead comrades-in-arms, regret over loss, and even remorse at outliving them willy-nilly.

            The following is what will become perhaps the most famous of such songs, ‘Dōki no Saku-ra[5]’. This will first be publicly performed in June of 1946 (the final year of the disastrous, then unconcluded, Pacific War). It will thereupon become a great favorite among the last class-year of Japan’s ‘voluntary’ cadet suicide-brigades[6]. And, even after Japan’s defeat, it will be re-recorded by at least three (politically-ambiguously affiliated) luminaries of Japanese popular music:

pal, you and me are saku-ra           
that blossom at the same one time
blooming in the parade-ground
of the same training-school
we know full well that once we’ve bloomed
our life cannot be long – so
when death comes let’s leave our bough
and for the country nobly plunge!

pal, you and me are saku-ra
that blossom at the same one time
blooming in the parade-ground
of the same training-school
it’s not that we were flesh and blood
and yet we’d somehow clicked and so
we had become inseparables –
parted with unspoken pain

pal, you and me are saku-ra
that blossom at the same one time
blooming in the parade-ground
of the same squadron-base
I search these sweeping southern skies
but through the glow the sun has left
Fighter One still comes not home
I too am left

pal, you and me are saku-ra
that blossom at the same one time
blooming in the parade-ground
of the same squadron-base
no longer here to greet that day
we had so often sworn we’d bring
why did you die – why leave our bough
and me to grieve?

pal, you and me are saku-ra              
that blossom at the same one time
though we fall at separate times and part
off in that city yearly graced by blossom
within those groves that Yasukuni guards
let us re-meet – together reborn
from one shared springtime twig

Saku-ra that blossom at the same one time’
Not without significance here are the following details.
Firstly, these lyrics have been set to an incongruously-brisk, bouncy, optimistic but also unmistakably pompous-sounding brass-band (i.e., militaristic) march. And yet this narrative concerns loss, to political requirements, of one the speaker had loved more dearly than even kin.

Secondly, of the oldest recordings of this song available on YouTube, one omits the fourth verse, and another the fifth. Now, why?

Well, the fourth verse refers to ‘that day we had so often sworn we’d bring’. This is a day that, in the end, Japan never saw: the day of its victory over the Allied forces. Moreover, this verse also refers bluntly to death (evidently resulting from mandated suicidal assault). And the Occupation censors would not have cared for either reference.

Back to the Yasukuni Shrine (cf. Part One)

And the fifth stanza mentions by name what is now a site of domestic and international contention: the Yasukuni Shrine. (In English-language newspapers, this is sometimes dubbed ‘the war shrine’.) This the ‘Restoration’ government established in 1869 – the second year of its rule. The initial intention was to offer a resting-place, consolation, and due reverence, to those killed in two bloody post-Restoration rebellions.

From the very start of this project, the shrine-precincts to be were planted with a prodigious number of saku-ra trees. This plantation was originally intended to ‘solace’ the spirits of those there (and, in time, increasingly-routinely) deified as war-heroes. Successive but equally-totalitarian Japanese governments then made their strong-armed presences increasingly felt internationally. And at Yasukuni were the spirits of both combatants and civilians consequently killed abroad or at home in turn enshrined.

Gradually, however, a government dominated by warmongers – abetted by right-wing journalists and lyric-writers – shifted the role of Yasukuni’s saku-ra-plantations. This cunning, scarcely-noticed transition was from ‘soothing’ with to ‘embodyingin their flowers the spirits of those lost through war. Moreover, it was decided that the sovereign should yearly make a respectful visit-of-worship whenever the blooming had reached its peak. He would thus deign to ‘honor’ the loyalty of those now ‘returned’, in blossom-form, to ‘dwell’ upon those boughs. 

       The name ‘Yasu-kuni’ is said to have originated with this puppet-monarch, Mutsuhito, (or with ‘his’ Ministry of the Royal Household). It was intended to denote a re-dedication to those that, ‘with pure, ardent hearts’, had ‘yearned for their country’s glory’. For, in their ardor, these combatants had proven ready even to ‘forget family, and discard all concern for personal safety’. (Which is why Occupation-overseer General MacArthur was to give serious consideration to razing this shrine to the bare ground.)

Reborn from one shared springtime twig

The speaker of the lyrics quoted most recently above seems to know his own mind only imperfectly. Having asked why his pal had to die, in finally invoking the Yasukuni Shrine, he trots out the then-government-approved answer. By comparison, however, the text that we shall finally examine might be described as positively slithery. For it is lent a bare semblance of coherence through resort to a tricky, sleight-of-hand trope.  In short,

saku-ra = impermanence (=mortality) + beauty
impermanence itself (=mortality) = beauty.

Please now proceed to our final section, Section Three.

beauty claimed for State-mandated death-in-battle

Section Three

‘Let’s in our very parting bloom’

       Finally, let us consider another commercial song, employing the same cherry-blossom metaphor, that won itself considerable popularity after Japan’s defeat. The rhythm and tempo are those of a funereally-slow march, played by an orchestra of, at first, apparently only strings. Later, however, this is increasingly supported by more belligerent-sounding brass.

saku-ra that scatters
saku-ra that flowers yet 
must scatter too
aren’t we fated all in time to scatter?
if so, that bloom which crowns a manly heart –
its only peak is now – so come!
blossom!  blossom!  bloom!

saku-ra that scatters
saku-ra that flowers yet 
must scatter too
though now it is alone I drink
out I set two saké-cups  to find
within the flowers above my head that face
which never leaves my heart – and to it offer cup on cup

[spoken:]
met yesterday – forced today to part                    
flowers are there too that, understanding,
simply nod  yet never this forget:
to part is also out to set afresh!

saku-ra that scatters
saku-ra that flowers yet 
must scatter too
isn’t it a given that life can but be short?
once scattered, then alike we all become
so while cruel winds still not yet blow 
come, blossom!  blossom!  bloom!

saku-ra that scatters
saku-ra that flowers yet 
must scatter too
whether we may weep or laugh
life’s frailty will not be changed
since there’s no dream that’s granted twice
let’s in our very parting bloom!

Saku-ra that flowers yet must scatter too’: a song filled with telling contradictions

Stanza One suggests there is something the inevitability of mortality demands – of ‘that bloom which crowns a manly heart’. And what it demands is for the manly heart to seize the present moment, by blossoming. But what form is such blossoming to take?

            The insistently-repeated ‘pre-frain’ to each verse implies that what is required is undergoing government-decreed self-immolation. This is, however, an assumption that the first half of the spoken interlude suggests is incorrect. For what that ‘simple’ – yet pregnant – ‘nod’ communicates is not solely resignation to losing a fellow-combatant you’ve realized you love. It signals a shared awareness of the inhuman cruelty of the injunction, Go out and do not come back alive.      

Awareness notwithstanding, the second stanza has already revealed that the Addressee implied has demonstrated perfect obedience to this absolute requirement.  For he has duly deserted the Addresser for the embrace instead of death through suicidal attack. The Addresser is thereby left with the sole solace of wine – offered to the one dead, but inevitably drunk unshared.


Obstinate and revealing relics of massive political scam

Thus, the spoken interlude uneasily – and consequently quite unconvincingly – yokes together two notions entirely unrelated.

The first – of which the distinct note of private truth has been prepared for by the preceding stanza – is this. The Addresser and the Addressee are, again, two cadet-pilots whom a shared sense of duty to country has thrown together. And, as does happen during wars, they have come to care for one another – tacitly but deeply. Yet obedience to that very sense of shared duty is promptly to separate them, and forever. And the flower-like beauty of their parting lies in mutual understanding of feelings that need no recourse to overt expression.

The second notion is, however, an utterly-banal, speciously-upbeat cliché void of any perceptible relation to the surrounding text.

Next, what are we to make of either of the propositions presented in the third stanza? The first of these is ‘once scattered, then alike we all become’. Initially, this would appear to offer some source of comfort, or solace. And yet the second stanza has presented the Addresser deserted – thanks to his comrade’s ‘manly’ fidelity to the state’s exactions. It has depicted him as seated beneath the blooming saku-ra of the Yasukuni Shrine, drinking alone to his comrade’s memory. So what can ‘alike’ actually mean, if not simply ‘likewise dead’?

How, additionally, are we to regard the succeeding imprecation: ‘while cruel winds still not yet blow / come, blossom! blossom! bloom!’? For any saku-ra-blossom at its peak, even the smallest breeze may bring instant death. What can it therefore be – this other form that blooming is exhorted to take? The answer can only lie in the last line of the final stanza: ‘let’s in our very parting bloom!’ To wit, to sacrifice what is precious is inherently and unmistakably noble – when undertaken for absolute monarch and country.

Why some thinking Japanese citizens should have so little affection for saku-ra

The insistently-fatalistic, and insistently-reiterated, refrain (to repeat) misappropriates Priest Ryōkan’s (cf. Part Two) shrewdly-laconic haiku in a manner most sinister. This being a just-postwar composition, no longer is the hyper-nationalist Japanese war-machine invoked – except implicitly by itsmusical setting. For this accompaniment makes it wholly obvious that what is being sung is, in essence, yet another military march –or ‘war-song’. And notice how many are its reminders of an inherent shortness to animate life:

saku-ra that flowers yet must scatter too’ × 4
‘aren’t we all destined in time to scatter?’
‘once scattered, then alike we all become’
‘whether we may weep or laugh, life’s frailty will not be changed’

Isolated and grouped like this, these characterizations begin to look suspiciously similar to special pleading. For they express loss caused by deaths that are, at best, state-solicited, and, at worst, effectually – and brutally-unilaterally – state-exacted. And yet, through a (basically counter-intuitive) identification with natural beauty, such required deaths are being not only normalized but even quasi-sacralized. ‘For the state deems that we attain our most beautiful when we acquiesce to deprivation of what we most love. Hence, in order gloriously to realize the beauty latent in our matchless spirits, that is how we must surely act.’

            And now we may see why young Japanese males should, from kindergarten up, have been so continually surrounded by cherry-trees. ‘This is what you, too, are: when the Emperor requires, you are to scatter as these flowers do – unresistingly, beautifully.’

As above, for those thoughtful and informed, with these flowers has become associated an exploitative, duplicitous and near-genocidal hypocrisy. Does it, then, come as any surprise that there should be many Japanese nationals who feel no joy in cherry-blossom? 


[1] The banks of this river form one of Tokyo’s districts in which a large number of saku-ra-trees have been planted.

[2] This refers to the strategy of, instead of grouping one’s troops in tight masses, having them form lines of skirmishers. Doing this became feasible only once there were available infantry-troops bonded by a sense of common national identity. Its application by the Japanese army may very well have proudly symbolized its state-of-the-art modernity as a fighting force.   

[3] Readers should note that that this does not refer merely to the troop- disposition described in the preceding footnote.

[4] This term refers to an ‘indigenous’ practice of gathering to mark the hundredth day following someone’s death. Toasts would be drunk, drunk from auspiciously-scarlet-lacquered saké-dishes, to honor and celebrate the pre-mortem achievements of the deceased. Far from being ‘indigenous’, it was hypocritically copied, by a brutally anti-Buddhist government, from nothing other than Buddhist practices.

[5] There is an ambiguity here. Contemporary singers/listeners may have interpreted dōki no saku-ra as implying, ‘cadets of the same class-year, volunteers to die in assault’.

[6] tokubetsu-kōgeki-tai, or tokkō-tai for short – in the West better known as ‘kami-kaze’.


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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