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Japan in Bloom

By Hanya Yanagihara

So essential a symbol is the cherry blossom that nearly every Japanese visual artist is compelled to address it in their work. The following images are very different takes on the sakura by a selection of Japanese contemporary photographers. Above: Shomei Tomatsu’s “Kohiganzakura — Takato-machi, Nagano” (1980).
© Interface-Shomei Tomatsu, courtesy of Misa Shin Gallery
So essential a symbol is the cherry blossom that nearly every Japanese visual artist is compelled to address it in their work. The following images are very different takes on the sakura by a selection of Japanese contemporary photographers. Above: Shomei Tomatsu’s “Kohiganzakura — Takato-machi, Nagano” (1980).

The scene is a park in the late afternoon. It is springtime: The trees are a profound, almost bluish emerald; the first reeds are beginning to sprout in the river. The sky is a soft, worn, denimy blue, although above a smudge of cloud is a stripe of near black — it will rain soon. Yet there is no sense of doom, no portent; the rain, you sense, will be welcome when it arrives.

Down by the river, people have gathered. The adults wear kimonos in shades that match the landscape — rich greens, warm blues — and the children wear clothes the colour of carp. A little girl turns her face up to her mother; a little boy bends over to peer at something he spots in the grass — his mother reaches out her arms to him in the universal helpless gesture of a parent trying to call back her child from the brink of mischief-making even as she understands her attempts will be futile. In the hills above them are two pavilions connected by a wooden bridge and accessed by a steep staircase that wends through the forest; in the windows, some of whose shoji shades have been pushed back to allow the air in, you can see that the ceiling has been strung with globes of red paper lanterns.

But all of these details, all of this life, is incidental to the element that dominates this tableau: a grove of cherry trees, most of them in full flower. Behind the cluster of 16 that stands closest to the river, there is another layer, this one so profuse in its bloom that it has become a cloud of pink, the petals so thickly clumped that they obscure even the surrounding greenery — the pines and paulownias and persimmon trees, now bare of fruit — in a fog. Beneath the trees, on wide, low benches made of young bamboo, sit people, singly or in couples. Two women turn to each other in conversation, but the remainder do not; they are not there to do anything — they are only there to sit beneath the cherry trees.

© Rinko Kawauchi, courtesy of RoseGalleryRinko Kawauchi’s “Untitled,” from the series “Approaching Whiteness” (2011).
Rinko Kawauchi’s “Untitled,” from the series “Approaching Whiteness” (2011).

This is not a scene I have witnessed for myself, but apart from a few details — the kimonos; the pavilion; the clean, blank sky clear of skyscrapers and telephone lines and passing aeroplanes — it could be. It is a scene from a woodblock print, “Flower Pavilion, Dangozaka, Sendagi,” by the Japanese ukiyo-e master Hiroshige, the 16th image in his serialized portfolio, “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” which was published between 1856 and 1859. Hiroshige’s masterwork (which actually consisted of 119 prints, most of which he completed himself before dying in 1858) has endured for the same reason it was so popular in his lifetime: It is a chronicle of the changing seasons and daily life in what was then (and now) one of the largest cities in the world. One feels, from the distance of time, the strange sorrow and ex post facto dread that contemplating art made on the cusp of great change can elicit: Commodore Perry’s black-hulled ships had forced Japan open to the West in 1853; by 1868, the shogunate would be overthrown, and Edo, once a medieval fishing village, would become the imperial seat and renamed Tokyo.

Yet of all the turmoil the country would endure and inflict over the next 150-odd years, what has remained consistent is its love for cherry blossoms, or sakura, as they are commonly called. Anyone who has even a passing interest in Japan knows this, has seen the photographs of black-suited salarymen having picnic lunches in an incongruously pink landscape, like something out of a child’s fantasy bedroom. When cherry blossom season nears — typically the first and second week of April, though that is changing — news programs and papers start airing and printing cherry blossom reports, sakura zensen, alongside the weather forecasts, noting where and when in the country the trees are or will be in peak bloom. Equivalent environmental reports are made about snow in Colorado or waves in Hawaii or maple leaves in Vermont, but when the West covers the Japanese interest in cherry blossoms, it is often with a faint, patronizing smirk, as if there’s something essentially silly and feminine about being so fascinated by the color pink.

The cherry blossom is not just an icon of Japan: It is the icon of Japan, one that enhances and ultimately eclipses every other. The maiko, or apprentice geisha, in her kimono, its nape dipped in the back just low enough to allow a glimpse of her vulnerable, delicate upper vertebrae: The silk, as befits a young woman, is, in springtime, a spun-sugar pink, its pattern a Milky Way scatter of cherry blossoms. The cup of matcha, frothy and vegetal, is best when accompanied by a namagashi, or sweet, shaped like a cherry flower, its colour making the sharp new green of the tea grassier in contrast. Even Mount Fuji, which ought to be enough on its own, is often shown foregrounded by cherry trees in bloom, the photograph or etching or painting reduced to three bands of colour: the blue of the sky, the white of the mountain’s peak, the barest shell-pink of the flowers.

Of course, other countries and other cultures have, or had, a treasured flower. There is the Netherlands with its tulips, and India and Southeast Asia with their lotus. But the Japanese have never industrialized the cherry blossom, and it has only rarely been imbued with religious symbolism — it simply is. Japan without the cherry blossom is like a person without a head: The image is wrong, inconceivable. Nowhere else in the world is a flower so intrinsic to the country that adores it.

© Nobuyoshi Araki/courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, TokyoNobuyoshi Araki’s “67 Shooting Back” (2007).
Nobuyoshi Araki’s “67 Shooting Back” (2007).

Last spring, I went to Japan to see the cherry blossoms. It was the first of April, but I had gambled — with each year, the flowers were opening earlier and earlier, and I was hoping I might see them just as they were beginning to bud. On the streets and in the shops, plastic shoots of sakura branches had already appeared, tied in firecracker explosions to street lamps, arranged in fans over displays of soft drinks at the convenience stores.

I went first to Sendagi, the area immortalized in Hiroshige’s print. It was a damp, woolly day, and the skies, as in the woodblock, were a sullen and indecisive grey — Would it rain? Would it not? — the kind of energy-leaching weather that leaves one lazy and irritable. Today, this neighbourhood, along with its two neighbours, Yanaka and Nezu, are popular tourist destinations; Tokyo is largely a new city, rebuilt after the Allied firebombings of World War II, but these three districts were somehow spared destruction, and in them, their low-slung houses, their centuries-old shops selling rice crackers and udon, one can find the echoes of the capital’s early 20th-century life. The Dangozaka hill of Hiroshige’s print was still there, now an anonymous paved road, lined by squat brick apartment buildings, and so, too, was the park, or at least a park, with a red-lacquered bridge arching over a small pond. There were cherry trees here, but they were still bare, their furled leaves green as caterpillars. I sat on a rock and looked instead at the plum blossoms as I ate my rice ball.

It was disappointing not to see the cherry trees in bloom, yet it was a relief as well. Japan is primarily a Buddhist country, but what defines it more than its religion is its rigorous and distinct sense of aesthetics, one that has been founded on a celebration of seasonality. If the life of Christ has inspired some of Western art’s greatest endeavours, then it is the weather — the morning glories in summer, the maple leaves in autumn, the snows of winter and the flowering trees of springtime — that has informed Japan’s, from its paintings to its poetry to its cuisine. To be in Japan, to be Japanese, is to be engaged in a constant, continual recognition of the changing seasons, an acknowledgement that begins at birth. In the West, we may live with the idea of the self; in Japan, one lives with the idea of the elements that surround the self — the sky and the sea and the forest and the earth, their colours and scents and flavours. Climate change, its creeping assault on the seasons’ individuality, the way it has blurred fall into winter and allowed summer to hoggishly extend its stay, like a comedian who won’t leave the stage, is here not merely an environmental threat — it is a threat to 2,000 years of aesthetics. Here, as everywhere, the crisis is existential, because it leads, inevitably, to contemplating the elimination of man; but it is also more immediately terrifying, because it means an erasure of something culturally inimitable.

One year I would arrive on the first of April or even at the end of March, and the skies would already be aflutter with pink. And then what? The cherry blossoms’ appearance, after all, was not only a symptom of spring; it was spring. Without them, would we really know that we had actually moved from one realm — and into another?

But why the cherry blossom? And how? Hanami, or flower-viewing, has been a fact of Japanese court life since the eighth century (another particularity of Japanese culture: how many practices, from bowing to flower-viewing, remain more or less intact from their origins in the imperial court more than a thousand years ago), but the original subject of those gatherings — parties of women in silk and poets with their brushes, the descendants of whom are those salarymen carrying their bento boxes, trudging from their offices to the nearest park — were not cherry trees but plum trees, whose flowers are sturdier, their pink hotter and more aggressive.

We don’t know for certain, but one theory I have is that the Japanese court switched their allegiance from the plum to the cherry blossom as a way of culturally asserting themselves. After all, the Chinese court was famously enamored of the plum blossom; the Japanese had already borrowed their religion and written alphabet from the Chinese — must they imitate them here as well? Whatever the reason, the cherry blossom arguably makes its first recorded appearance in the Kojiki (circa 712), Japan’s oldest extant text, often translated as “The Record of Ancient Things”; over the centuries, it became the enduring symbol of spring itself. In the early 14th century, the Buddhist priest Kenko wrote a series of short meditations — gathered in the subsequent decades into a collection now known as “Essays in Idleness,” or “The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko” — in which he mentioned the cherry blossom:

The changing of the seasons is deeply moving in its every manifestation. People seem to agree that autumn is the best season to appreciate the beauty of things. That may well be true, but the sights of spring are even more exhilarating. The cries of the birds gradually take on a peculiarly springlike quality, and in the gentle sunlight the bushes begin to sprout along the fences. Then, as spring deepens, mists spread over the landscape and the cherry blossoms seem ready to open, only for steady rains and winds to cause them to scatter precipitously. The heart is subject to incessant pangs of emotion as the young leaves are growing out.

The theme of many of Kenko’s passages is impermanence, a central tenet of Buddhism. Wealth, material goods, position, knowledge — all are passing, and all are meaningless. “The truly enlightened man has no learning, no virtue, no accomplishments, no fame,” Kenko writes in another essay, concluding, “All is unreality. Nothing is worth discussing, worth desiring.”

That idea — that everything in life is temporary; that all desire, whether altruistic or selfish in nature, is meaningless — helps explain the culture’s adoration of the sakura. If the cherry blossom can still be relied upon to bloom at a specific time, it can also be relied upon to die soon after: For 51 weeks, one waits, and within seven days at most, one is consigned to waiting once more. The pleasure of seeing a cherry tree in bloom is the sorrow of knowing that it will soon be over. To be in the presence of one is to be humbled before nature, and moreover, to be welcoming of that humiliation. A sakura is the human life condensed into the period of a week: a birth, a wild, brief glory, a death. It is to us what we are to the sweep of time — a millisecond of beauty, a memory before we are even through.

© Yoshinori Mizutani, courtesy of Ima Gallery, TokyoYoshinori Mizutani’s “Cherry Blossoms” (2019).
Yoshinori Mizutani’s “Cherry Blossoms” (2019).

By the early 1900s, however, the cherry blossom had been co-opted by an increasingly ambitious and avaricious government, one that by the 1930s was embracing its own version of Manifest Destiny as a justification to colonize the Asian continent. As the Japanese journalist Naoko Abe notes in her recent book “The Sakura Obsession,” the cherry blossom had become a metaphor for the supposed unique qualities, the endurance and singularity, of the Japanese people. (It was also during this time — not intentionally, but perhaps not coincidentally — that the country’s many cultivated varieties of cherry trees were being neglected or eliminated in favor of the inexpensive, hardy and fast-growing somei-yoshino, the fluffy, blush-tinged variety that Japan would export to various countries, in part as a peace offering, after World War II. Abe’s book is largely a biography of the Englishman who encouraged the rebirth in Japan of the splendid, snowy taihaku breed, all but extinct by the 1920s.) “Rather than focusing on [the] cherry blossom as a symbol of life, the songs, plays and school textbooks [of the 1930s] now focused more on death,” she writes. “Classic poems were deliberately misinterpreted, and it became the norm to believe that the Yamato damashii, or ‘true Japanese spirit,’ involved a willingness to die for the emperor — Japan’s living god — much as the cherry petals died after a short but glorious life.”

That propagandizing of the cherry blossom had lingering effects. Even now, there is something haunted about the sakura; it is associated with death in a way that people cannot articulate to their satisfaction. My friend Mihoko, who lives in Tokyo, sent me a short story from 1928, “Beneath the Cherry Trees,” by the Modernist writer Motojiro Kajii:

There are bodies buried beneath the cherry trees. Oh, yes, you can take my word for it. How otherwise do you think the blossom could bloom so splendidly? For two or three days it’s been disturbing me, that incredible beauty. But now at last I’ve got it. There are bodies buried beneath the cherry trees. You mark my word! …

Just try imagining that each of these cherry trees, with its riotous mass of blossom, has a corpse buried beneath it. …

What can be responsible for such petals, for such pistils and stamens? I seem to see the crystalline fluid, drawn up by the tendrils, advancing dreamlike in quiet columns through the veins of the trees.

The idea of the cherry blossom as a Japanese citizen, willing to sacrifice his life for the country, was an appropriative convenience. But despite the irony and ghoulishness of Kajii’s story, there is beauty in this narrative as well — it is the people who beget the tree, and the tree that pleases the people: a culture and a plant, their survival inextricable from one another. “They are one, by now, with the trees,” Kajii’s fable ends, “and however I shake my head they show no sign of separating again.”

Four years after he published his story, Kajii was dead of tuberculosis. He was 31. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say not that he was dead, but that he had become a cherry tree. Not reborn, quite, but remade. Every tree in Japan is therefore not just a symbol of the dead, but a manifestation of them. A cherry tree is a reminder of the relentlessness of life, of the earth’s unceasing, implacable desire to keep making more of itself. To live on an island is to be vividly aware of your vulnerability, to be always at nature’s mercy. A wave, an earthquake, a typhoon — anything can be destroyed, no matter how cherished or how hard-fought. But a cherry tree promises that despite the destruction, there will always be more, more, more. Or, even better: Again, again, again.

For the next few days I walked the city, visiting all the neighbourhoods, the little parks and alleys, that I always do on my annual visit, which I have taken for the past 22 years. One day I rode the train out to the suburbs to see the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, a 17-acre campus with 30 well-preserved or renovated Japanese houses dating from the 1600s through the 1950s.

The museum is one of my favourites in Japan, and after I had spent the morning there, I bought a soft-serve ice cream (sakura flavoured) and walked through the large surrounding park. Here and there were a few plum trees, their flowers dazzlingly fuchsia. (It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the plum trees, which in any other place would draw their own crowds, their own worshipers, but here can be overlooked simply for not being sakura, or treated as an opening act to be impatiently endured.) Cherry trees had been planted in long, stately rows, and there was a wooden sign listing the different varieties and their expected bloom date: The first group of them would flower in 10 days, but by then I would already be back in New York.

© Takahiro Kaneyama, courtesy of Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, New YorkTakahiro Kaneyama’s “Sakura at a Chinese Restaurant” (2018).
Takahiro Kaneyama’s “Sakura at a Chinese Restaurant” (2018).

About 20 minutes into my walk, I encountered a cherry tree in bloom, its branches a penumbra of white. It was a spindly, boastful thing, and yet a dozen people sat beneath it, chatting and murmuring, briskly unpacking elaborate lunches. Up close, I saw that each flower had a deep-pink throat, and it was this, as well as the tiny dots of pink that topped each stamen, that gave the blossom its colour. The petals were so thin that they spun, rather than floated, to the ground, where they plastered themselves to the asphalt walkways like damp tissue. The beauty of a sakura is that it is only beautiful when it’s still attached to the tree — try to pick a blossom and it tears: It is more liquid than solid, and not meant to be held or indeed kept for longer than a few minutes. Try to press one and it spoils, smearing the pages of your book with brown.

The next day, I went to the mountains of Kyoto, which are always a few degrees cooler than Tokyo — I didn’t expect to see any sakura there, and indeed, I didn’t. I went to the temples I visit every year; I drank cup after cup of sakura tea, which has a curious salinity, as if it’s not tea at all, but a broth made from seawater. I saw plum trees and camellia bushes and, everywhere, glossy black-barked cherry trees, their branches blistered with unopened buds, people circling hopefully beneath them as if they might at any moment burst into bloom.

Then I returned to Tokyo; the following day, I would go home. Back in the city, it was humid again. At the train station, I hailed a taxi and stared out the window as the car wound its way through the light midday traffic, working its way to the west of the city, where I would spend my final night.

We were in Shinjuku now. The car turned down one unremarkable thoroughfare, and then another. And then it turned again, and suddenly we were on a street ablaze with cherry trees in luxuriant, excessive bloom. There they were, a dozen on each side of the street, all of them shaggy with flowers, the air around them swarming with floating petals, as if the petals were affixing themselves to the branches. Beneath and around them were everyday people doing everyday things, the tasks that need to be completed if a great city is to function: A delivery truck was being unloaded, and the sidewalk was being swept, and a repairman was shimmying up a telephone pole, and a woman was dragging a wooden crate of what might have been daikon to the door of a soba-ya. It was comical and also unbelievable, as if above them the skies were busy with flying pigs, and no one had noticed. This was a plain, unremarkable street, but in that moment, it was the most beautiful in Japan. It made me wonder whether it wasn’t good fortune after all that the sakura season was so brief, for, these people aside, how could anyone get anything done in the face of such splendour? Wasn’t it miraculous that life didn’t simply cease in those two weeks in April that the trees were in bloom? How could you concentrate on anything else? How could a human compete?

Just as I was thinking this, the delivery man finished loading his truck. He slammed shut the back door. And then, before he climbed into the driver’s seat, he stopped and looked up at the cherry trees. He closed his eyes. And then he slapped the back door again, to make sure it was closed, and got into his truck.

The light changed. My cab moved on. But I turned in my seat, craning my neck, watching the trees disappear from view, watching the final petals drift through the air. When I turned back around, they were gone, and Shinjuku, its grey bridges and walkways, loomed before us, as if nothing had happened at all.

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