Symbolism of Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Written by henry randolph
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Introduction
  • Introduction

    Symbolism of Japanese Cherry Blossoms

    When Japanese flowering cherry trees burst into full, glorious pink and white bloom in spring, they set off a national celebration in Japan. Young and old throng to parks or wherever there are stands of the blossoming trees to revel in the short-lived blossoms and to party under them. These cherry blossom viewing parties, the flowers' extensive use in art dating back a thousand years, and their pop culture manifestations reflect the important symbolic meanings that attach to the cherry blossom and that make it an enduring aspect of Japanese culture.

    Cherry blossoms (cherry tree flowers blossoming in Kiev botanic gar image by Oleg Mitiukhin from Fotolia.com)

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    Symbol of the Nation

    The cherry flower is glorified throughout Japan as "the flower of flowers." When the Japanese use the word "hana" (flower) they mean "sakura" (cherry blossom). "It symbolises perfection and satisfies their aesthetic taste," write H. Bauer and S. Carlquist in "Japanese Festivals." Poets and artists have depicted the lovely blossoms through the centuries to the present day. As the "Land of Cherry Blossoms," Japan uses the flowering cherry as a symbol of friendship in its cultural diplomacy. In 1912, the mayor of Tokyo donated the 3,000 trees that today line the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia received theirs in 1926, to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of America's independence. Both cities stage popular annual cherry blossom festivals.

    One of the many varieties of sakura. (Cherry Blossom image by wuhuu from Fotolia.com)

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    Harbinger of Spring

    The cherry blossom bloom marks the arrival of spring. It starts in early March in Okinawa in southernmost Japan, and gradually advances north, ending finally in Hokkaido by mid-May. This "sakura zansen" (cherry blossom front) is tracked daily by the media, so that people can prepare for "hanami," the traditonal cherry blossom viewing parties, when the flowers are at their peak. For Japanese, this tradition strengthens families and friendships.

    Cherry blossom viewing (Cherry Blossom Festival image by Angelika Bentin from Fotolia.com)

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    Natural New Year

    Although Japan celebrates New Year the same time as we do in the West, the blossoming of the cherry symbolises the natural beginning of the Japanese year, when schools and universities begin the new academic year, and newly-hired employees join their new companies.

    Children with sakura (children with cherry blossoms image by TMLP from Fotolia.com)

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    Symbol of Purity

    "The traditional Japanese values of purity and simplicity are thought to be reflected in the form and colour of the blossoms," according to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture. The connection to spring, as well as innocence, delicacy and simplicity, make the blossoms popular with events and products tied to weddings and school openings. Many businesses large and small have "sakura" in their name or use its image in advertising. Cherry blossoms appear on the back of the 1,000-yen bank note, known as Japan's "10-dollar bill," together with the equally exalted Mt. Fuji.

    Mt. Fuji: another symbol of Japan (diamond fuji iii image by Craig Hanson from Fotolia.com)

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    Symbol of the Samurai

    One reason the sakura is so highly prized is that the blossom lasts such a short time. Buddhist teachings stress the impermanence of life, and the bloom symbolised this to samurai, whose own lives as soldiers in the service of their masters were often brilliant, beautiful--and short. Hence cherry blossoms appear in many depictions of samurai and on folding screens, sliding doors, kimonos and lacquer ware from samurai days. During World War II, kamikaze suicide pilots painted them on their aeroplanes.

    Samurai castle with cherry blossoms (Himeji castle with cherry blossoms (sakura) in the foreground image by koi88 from Fotolia.com)

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