Why Cherry Blossoms (Sakura 桜) are More Than Just Pretty Pink Flowers in Japan (and to Tom Cruise).
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from 25 years of living in Japan, it’s that to the Japanese people, the Sakura, or cherry blossom, is much more than just a pretty pink flower.
What It Really Is
It’s a symbol of renewal, hope, resilience, and the fleeting nature of life itself.
The allure of cherry blossoms lies in their impermanence. It's human nature to be drawn to things we cannot control or have, and the fact that their blooming is an cyclical event makes us appreciate them even more. Each year, we eagerly anticipate the return of this fleeting beauty, knowing that it will only last for a brief period of time (2 weeks) before disappearing until the following spring.
For centuries, the annual blooming of the Sakura has been a cherished event, drawing crowds of people from all over the country to parks and other public spaces to admire their beauty.
The importance of Sakura to the Japanese people can be seen in the way they celebrate its arrival every spring.
The tradition of Hanami, or flower viewing, involves gathering under the blooming trees with friends and family to enjoy food, drink, and each other’s company. This tradition dates back to the 8th century when the Imperial Court held cherry blossom-viewing parties.
It’s a time of reflection and appreciation for the beauty of nature, and a reminder to cherish these present moments.
Beyond its cultural significance, the Sakura has also had a profound impact on Japanese art, literature, and music.
Countless poems, paintings, and songs have been inspired by the delicate beauty of the cherry blossom, and it has become an enduring symbol of Japanese identity and cultural heritage.
Sakura And The Samurai (and Tom Cruise!)
Have you seen the movie ‘The Last Samurai’ (最後の侍)
There’s nothing cheezy about this movie. It’s a classic and even Tom Cruise became revered in Japan thanks to how well it was done and how much effort he put into it.
There were a couple of key scenes in which Sakura played a part, one directly and one indirectly.
The first one was when Katumoto, who was played brilliantly by Ken Watanabe was walking with Captain Algren (Tom Cruise) and said to him
“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”
They had been talking about the Sakura and its importance in the culture.
The second and indirect were the most significant (spoiler alert coming if you’ve not seen it and intend to! Go and watch it and come back!)
On the battlefield, the moment Katumoto thrusts his sword into his own side you can see the Sakura falling in the background.
This duel moment of death for both those Sakura petals falling and Katsumoto represents the transience and impermanence of life, a key theme in Japanese culture and this scene highlights the fleeting nature of life and the importance of appreciating the present moment.
The falling sakura petals also provide a poignant backdrop to Katsumoto’s death, as he represents the traditional way of life and the samurai code that is rapidly disappearing in Japan at the time. The petals falling from the trees can be seen as a visual representation of the passing of an era and the end of a culture, emphasizing the tragedy of Katsumoto’s death and the loss of this way of life.
Samurai warriors would often use Sakura imagery on their armour and banners to signify their bravery and readiness to die in battle.
Sakura has also been used as a symbol of the Samurai’s ‘Bushido’ (code of conduct), which celebrates the importance of living in the present moment and embracing death without fear.
The Samurai believed that their lives were similarly fleeting and that they too should live in the moment, embracing death without fear and striving to live with honour and integrity.
Katsumoto’s last words to Algren were:
“Perfect… They are all… perfect…”
These words are a reflection of Katsumoto’s acceptance of death and his admiration for the Samurai warriors who fought alongside him. So the addition and timing of the Sakura petals falling really did make it ‘Perfect’, and his portrayal of The Last Samurai (which is generally accepted as one Mr. Saigō Takamori) was magnificent.
It’s a Symbol Of International Friendships
Washington DC has a large number of Sakura trees, also known as cherry blossom trees, because of a gift from Japan.
In 1912, Japan gifted the United States with 3,000 Sakura trees as a symbol of the friendship between the two countries. The trees were planted around the Tidal Basin in Washington DC and have since become a major tourist attraction in the city, drawing thousands of visitors each year.
The gift of the Sakura trees was originally proposed by Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist who had been living in the United States. Takamine wanted to improve relations between the two countries and suggested that Japan send cherry blossom trees to Washington DC as a gesture of goodwill.
The idea was well-received, and the trees arrived in 1912. Unfortunately, the first shipment of trees was infested with insects and had to be burned. Japan quickly sent a second shipment of trees, which arrived a few years later and were successfully planted around the Tidal Basin.
Over time, the Sakura trees have become an iconic symbol of Washington DC and the friendship between the United States and Japan. Today, the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC draws millions of visitors each year to see the beautiful pink and white blooms.
The Importance Transcends Into My Life Too
Of course, the beauty and importance of Sakura now transcend many countries and cultures, and a photo of my son and I enjoying Sakura in Yokohama Japan is a testament to that!
Sakura to me is a reminder to slow down, appreciate the present moment, and find joy in the simple things in life. And for the Japanese people, it will continue to be a cherished symbol of their unique culture and identity for generations to come.
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