People from all around the world know that spring symbolizes “a new beginning”. But in what terms exactly? Well, that’s up to the individual’s perspective and view in life. For some, they may be looking for some legendary Samurai locations. Well, for most it’s just simple.
For students, they get to study for a new school year. Animal lovers get to watch small and adorable creatures come out to play. Adventurers can recharge their adrenaline and enjoy the season. And of course, flowers of different kinds get to showcase their beauty. They get to do this while emerging with sunny scenery.
One well-known blossom that catches everyone’s attention is the Sakura. Sakura, or cherry blossoms, is an enduring symbol in Japan as well as it’s the unofficial national flower. These flowers have petals of pretty pink and blossoms on a brown cherry tree.
These unique trees are also found in other parts of Asia like China and India. But Japan celebrates Sakura viewing for centuries as a tradition. Because of that, people from all around the world prefer to visit in the country. Besides, Japan is the home of not only hundreds but thousands of cherry blossom trees. The Sakura symbolizes “new life” in Japanese folk religions.
During springtime, these blossoms explode into a beautiful sight. The chilling fresh air gives a soothing vibe to the viewer as they watch pastel pinks from above. But after around two weeks, the petals drop on the ground and withers.
What is the history of Sakura viewing?
Around 700 AD, Sakura trees are only found in the mountains. People then decided to transplant these trees to residential areas. This is because the trees were an essential part of folk religion in Japan. People would worship these Sakura trees as part of their beliefs. They saw the Sakura trees as sacred objects as they carried the souls of mountain gods.
Many believed that every spring, the gods from the mountain would travel down. They would go towards the falling petals. They would then transform themselves into gods of rice paddies. In Japan, rice is an important crop in agriculture. This is when people considered the blooming of flowers as a sign of rice-harvests.
Hanami is the term used for cherry-blossom viewing and celebrated as a feast. People celebrate it yearly underneath the Sakura trees. So when they noticed that the flowers are on full bloomed, rice harvests would be bountiful. The people would then celebrate for such blessings they would receive.
During the Heian Period, Emperor Saga held these parties while serving Sake. They only held these celebrations under the Sakura trees of the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Poetry became a way to adore these flowers. They see these written works as metaphors of life.
Hanami was only exclusive to the people of the Imperial Court. But soon, the Samurai joined the parties and hold their own. By the Edo period, everyone else including the commoners celebrated Hanami. Tokugawa Yoshimune encouraged the celebration by planting Sakura trees around different areas. Since everyone rejoiced during the feast, many called it “the great equalizer”.
Sakura and Samurai
These delicate pink flowers represent the noble warriors of Japan – the Samurai. They are men who understood death and didn’t fear it. Minamoto Yoritomo established a feudal system during his time. He as well formed the Samurai class as the private military.
Researchers and professionals stated that Samurai decorated their equipment used for military services. They do this by placing figures and symbols of the Sakura blossom as a reminder of their duty. You will see the flowers as sword ornaments. You will see some in their Tsuka. Others in their Gusoku or armor.
When a Samurai felt that he needed to restore his honor or his family’s, he performs Seppuku. Seppuku is a ritual suicide done by disembowelment. This became an essential part of the Bushido Code of the Samurai, it was as important as one’s Katana.
A part of a Samurai’s duty is that they should learn to adore death. A Samurai should accept that death does not discriminate for it is unavoidable. That’s why a noble warrior should learn not to fear death.
Natives believed that a Sakura blossom symbolizes the death of a warrior. Despite such short-lived lives, these men died during their fullest bloom. Their death is perfect through the eyes of society and will remain special.
The Meiji Period
During the Meiji Period, Samurai lost their social ranks and authority. This is because Emperor Meiji took these things away from them. The government then formed a new army with its soldiers granted with the Japanese spirit. They taught them they would “die like beautiful falling petals for the emperor”. This became a part of Japan’s nationalist goals.
Sakura trees are scattered at the Yasukuni Shrine. This shrine serves as a memorial for fallen soldiers since the Meiji Period. The emperor would visit the site often to pay respect to the fallen. The Sakura blossoms there would give comfort to the souls of these soldiers.
The culture of accepting death instead of defeat became a theme in the practice of Seppuku. This also became a part of the Bushido code. As periods passed by, the code never left the Japanese military.
Vice-admiral Onishi Takijiro then launched an operation called Kamikaze. Kamikaze are pilots who were part of Special Attack Corps. They committed suicide attacks as service for the nation.
As a symbol for not wavering, pilots placed Sakura branches to their uniforms. They also added painted emblems of these flowers on the sides of their planes. It’s kind of similar to how the ancient Samurai placed Sakura emblems on their weapons.
At this point, the Sakura blossoms at the Yasukuni Shrine had a change of meaning. Before, they believed that the blossoms mourned for those who died. But then each fallen petal represented each soldier who died. These soldiers are those who died in an honorable way, thus fulfilling the Bushido Code.
Japan, Seppuku, and Sakura
Should a person die in a way where they felt miserable and weak? Or should one make their final moments memorable and inspiring? Of course, a majority would want the latter. Everyone looks up at someone with final epic moments.
Japan may have a deep history of suicidal warriors and soldiers, but now, at least we get to understand why. We even got to know why the Sakura is such a symbolic flower. Who knew that such small and fragile flowers could make a big impact on many people?
The Sakura served as a symbol of inspiration to accept the cycle of life. Once accepting this concept, people get to understand how to live their lives. They understood why people would prefer death. There is more beyond just the Japanese swords and Samurai. There is more to learn in Japanese culture.
So the next time you get to witness a Hanami festival, try actually appreciating the story behind it. Enjoy the delicious food and Sake. Feel yourself rewind as you watch lovely cherry-blossoms flutter away like butterflies. Digest such deep and knowledge that’s worth learning.