Sakura, with five petals of pale pink, is the national flower of Japan. The appearance of sakura, cherry blossom in Japanese, is the sign of spring. The bare trees in winter start to have hard buds that swell gradually as the spring approaches.
“The cherry blossom front is advancing northward”. It is the common phrase in the weather forecast in springtime. We follow the charts, which tell us when the blossoms are going to be at their best in each area – from the south of Japan, in March, to the north, Hokkaido, in May. Hanami, "viewing flowers" in Japanese, means viewing sakura straightforwardly in our mind.
At any park or riverside in spring, people enjoying a picnic under the cherry blossoms will be seen. Packed groups of families, friends and work colleagues joyfully share songs and exchange drinks. It is said that the custom began in rituals of dedication to mountain-gods more than a thousand years ago. During the Edo period (1603–1867) its ritualistic aspect gave way to a more sociable flavour. Hanami became a popular event, as all kinds and classes of people, from rich to poor, enjoyed eating, drinking and performing farces under sakura trees.
A different meaning defines sakura as a claque or decoy – a person who, for example, from within a crowd attracts customers to a sale or auction. This use of the word might derive from the fact that wherever sakura blooms, people will gather.
The seasonal aspect of sakura lends itself to association with the cycles of life. Sakura can be the name chosen for girls who are born in spring. The word sakura can be used to describe the colour of the cheeks, lips and nails of small children or young girls, which are fresh and naïve like fragile petals.
Sakura is often associated with newcomers to schools or companies (the school year, and the careers of all new graduates in Japan, start in April). Almost all schools have cherry–blossom trees near the school gate. The scene of new students wearing fresh uniforms entering the gate under the blooming cherry blossoms is a typical image at this time of year.
Most university entrance examination results in Japan are announced in February–March. Until new technology rendered the terms obsolete, students who lived far from their chosen university and who could not come to see the results displayed on a notice–board were informed by telegraph messages with the legend: “sakura bloom” and “sakura fall”.
The image of sakura has been evoked in poems and songs for over a thousand years. But its connotations to us are not only sweet and lovely. It carries also the sense of mono–no–aware, the evanescence of life that has been one of our aesthetic senses.
The real beauty of sakura is the way the cherry-blossom petals fall like snowflakes. They bloom rich in pageantry but, after a few days, start to cascade with a good grace. At one time, this image suited and echoed the spirit of samurai. Because of their ephemeral beauty and the way they fell manfully, sakura also had the image of a dignified death. “Falling like sakura” was used as a metaphor that suggested dying honourably in wartime.
One spring, I visited Chidori–ga–fuchi riverside, one of the famous viewing–spots of cherry blossoms in Tokyo. After relishing the cheerful atmosphere of the pink–petalled riverside, I entered the nearby war museum. In contrast to the merry scene outside, the museum’s interior was dark and dull, and the wars seemed to me ancient events of far away.
Then, among the exhibited mementos of the second world war, I found the letter of a young soldier from a tropical battlefield, addressed to his mother. With polite caring words to his mother he was wondering if the cherry blossoms in the family's hometown had already bloomed. When I saw the line, I felt close to the soldier and shared a vivid soul with him that penetrated my heart. He was after all a Japanese who saw the same sakura. Suddenly the distance to the past lifted.
The word sakura can bring us memories and thoughts. The memory may be of a season in the past you spent with someone who might not anymore be with you; the thought may belong to someone who has lost health and wonders if he or she will be able to see the next sakura with loved ones.
With such individual experiences and a shared sense of belonging, the eternal transience of sakura lives and grows in our hearts.