top of page
  • Writer's pictureMaanasi Sridhar

"Under the Cherry-Blossoms None Are Utter Strangers"

Embodying the true essence of spring, Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) is an eagerly awaited event and beloved tradition in the United States and abroad. Every year millions of people all over the world enjoy the transient springtime beauty of cherry blossoms, particularly in Japan, flower gazing, or Hanami, has been a tradition for centuries.

While experiencing Sakura Matsuri in Japan would be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, including this writer, there are other countries around the world that celebrate these magnificent springtime blooms with a great pomp and show.

Under the cherry-blossoms none are utter strangers.

Cherry blossoms in evening. Ah well, today also belongs to the past.

—Kobayashi Issa

So, what is so special about cherry blossoms?

Known as Sakura in Japan, cherry blossoms hold an exalted place in Japanese society and culture, which could be traced back to centuries. Simply put, these delicate pink flowers could be considered as the soul or essence of Japanese society. The Japanese fervently follow the life cycle, just about fourteen days, of cherry blossoms when it blooms for a short time each year— a mindful and sacred act of reflection: on the beauty, fragility and meaning of life.

Bringing happiness to those who encounter Sakura during its glorious, albeit brief life has been document over the years, its spiritual and philosophical meaning and significance eloquently portrayed in literature and art. Great poets like Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, Matsuo Basho and Masaoka Shiki immortalized sakura in Haiku centuries ago. Even today their work (translated to English) is widely read and loved.

How many, many things They call to mind These cherry-blossoms!

Very brief – Gleam of blossoms in the treetops On a moonlit night.

—Matsuo Basho

A symbol of nationalism:

The Japanese people had unyielding loyalty to the emperor. In history and culture, the emperor held a divine status, and even during and before WWII the Japanese worshipped Emperor Hirohito as a living god among them. In her book Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney tells us about how the state convinced people that it was their honor to "die like beautiful falling cherry petals" for the emperor.

The symbolism and sentiment assigned to Sakura played an important role in the mission of Kamikaze soldiers (Tokkotai operation) during WWII. Kamikaze squadrons were given names related to cherry blossoms and their airplanes carried an emblem of cherry petals. Majority of the Kamikaze soldiers were students, young boys attending university who found themselves suddenly enlisted to go on suicide missions for their country. Many had no choice but to volunteer (those who perished in the war left behind diaries filled with profound thoughts and personal views. As Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney notes in her book, there were pilots who carried cherry blossoms on their uniform as they prepared for their final mission).

"Admiration of those who had already gone on the fatal missions frequently appears in pilots’ writings. Ichijima Yasuo, who was born in 1922 and died as a navy ensign on April 29, 1945, was a graduate of Waseda University. In a letter to a friend, he quotes a well-known poem by Ryokan (1758–1831)— 'Falling cherry blossoms, remaining cherry blossoms also be falling cherry blossoms,' implying that as the other pilots had fallen, so would he."

I got drunk, a sleep. And wept on the dream A wild cherry blossoms.

—Masaoka Shiki

A metaphor for "the ephemeral nature of life..."

Living in the United States, I feel lucky to witness this cherished springtime occurrence every year, particularly in the tri-state area. Often times I've taken it for granted, but as I learn more about what it means to an entire country; to an entire civilization; the significant place it holds in the lives of millions around the world, it humbles me. Its unassuming, delicate pink and white petals fall to the ground, its branches stooping and swaying in the breeze, as if to say...

A world of grief and pain. Flowers bloom Even then.

–Kobayashi Issa

If you are interested, do read:

Haiku: A Whole Lot More Than 5-7-5

—Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths by Haruo Shirane

—Books by Issa Kobayashi

—Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History by EmikoOhnuki-Tierney

—Kamikaze: A Japanese Pilot's Own Spectacular Story of the Famous Suicide Squadrons by Yasuo Kuwahara and Gordon T. Allred

Location: Branch Brook Park, New Jersey

Photos: Maanasi & Sri

bottom of page