IO – In the film the Last Samurai there is a scene where the Samurai and Captain Algren are standing under a blossoming cherry tree and the Samurai tells Algren, “You know a man could spend his whole life searching for the perfect blossom and it would not have been a wasted life…”
His words seem to mirror how in a way we think of Japanese culture. Cherry blossoms are of course, associated with Japan. It is Japan’s national flower and indeed one of the most iconic images of Japan in the popular mind is that of cherry blossoms blooming on a bough with Mount Fuji in the background. Then again Japanese beauty like the blossom is associated with a deceptive simplicity and the Samurai’s words though simple appear to hint at a mystery rather like a haiku where we wait for the next line that will somehow bring us greater clarity in understanding some ancient wisdom.
The sakura blossom as it is known in Japan, symbolizes spring and renewal. Kenichiro Matsuhisa is a businessman living in Jakarta who once studied literature. He was raised in the northern most island Hokkaido, which is very different from the mainland of Japan or Tokyo. There the cherry trees bloom later in May and there is no real tradition of cherry blossom watching but he moved to Tokyo to go to university and it was here that he really began to understand the tradition of hanami or blossom watching.
March is always the end of the school year and university. It is a time when people leave their school friends behind just as he left his to go to university in Tokyo. So, March, is about endings. He says, “In winter the cherry trees stand bare without leaves. They are just brown forms. There is nothing beautiful about them. Lonely shapes; black and white. In March small buds appear and then suddenly in April they are completely covered in blossoms. This is the same time when people enter new schools or universities, and find new jobs and it is also when the new fiscal year begins. So, people easily feel that everything in Japan including their own lives, are suddenly moving into a new phase. There is not only a sense of beginning new things but also a very strong feeling of sentimentality for the things left behind. And it was in this state that I saw my first cherry blossoms in Tokyo: having just left all the old school friends of my youth and starting university in a new phase of my life. And so it was that at age 18, I suddenly understood why so many people in Japan are fascinated by sakura blossoms and have strong feelings attached to them.”
The Japanese love their cherry blossoms so much that they have special parties to celebrate the cherry blossoms called hanami which means “watching blossoms”. Here family, friends and colleagues celebrate the blossoms with lots of food and drink and picnics. In the parks already early in the morning, people spread out blankets to claim the best places under the trees for their picnics later.
Wada Kaiji a Japanese language teacher living in Bandung stressed, “I experienced my first hanami at the age of one or two and now without a hanami I do not feel that spring has truly arrived.”
However, gazing at cherry blossoms is not just a Japanese pursuit. Ira Lembong, an Indonesian mother of three is obsessed with cherry blossoms and travels all over the world to see them. She says, “I always admired the rare charm of cherry blossom season as it transcends into my own understanding of life… fleeting, precious, and beautiful.”
In Japan one can also go at night to gaze at the blossoms. Yozakura is a way of looking at the cherry blossoms illuminated at night, using very strong light. One only sees the bright cherry blossoms surrounded by the blackness of night. This too, is very beautiful. These traditions of gazing at and enjoying the cherry blossoms originated at least a thousand years ago in Japan and there actually exists a thousand year old higan cherry tree called Taki-zakura or waterfall cherry at Miharu, Fukushima which has been designated a national treasure.
Perhaps this love of the cherry blossoms can be related to an early Shintoism which still had its roots in the animistic beliefs that everything has a spirit i.e. the trees, the wind, the water and so forth – all have spirits and when the cherry blossoms all at once appear so heart-stoppingly beautiful in spring, people may have felt that that spirit was emerging from the trees and displaying itself. Consequently, the flowers were not just seen as something material but they also saw in them spirit and nature itself arising again out of death. The blossoms last just two weeks so it is as if the spirit of nature suddenly came and then just as suddenly disappeared again, making the blossoms appear almost magical. Kenichiro Matsuhisa believes that this underlying early animism is why the Japanese are fascinated by nature and why they have kept this old tradition of blossom watching alive.
One of his favourite poets who has written about sakura blossoms is Motoori Norinaga the most eminent scholar in Shinto and Japanese classics of the 18th century who stressed sensitivity to beauty as the central concept of Japanese literature. His work provided the theoretical foundation of the modern Shinto revival. He also reaffirmed the ancient Japanese concept of musubi or the mysterious power of all creation and growth. In one of his most famous poems he said, “If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit I would answer that it is the blossoms of the wild mountain cherry glowing in the rising sun.”
Kenichiro Matsuhisa says that Motoori Norinaga’s work had a big influence on Japanese intellectuals but later his work was misused by the Japanese army during the Second World War.
There is a disagreement about where the Japanese cherry tree originated. The Chinese claim it is China but Koreans insist Korea is its birth place. In Japan, the cherry blossoms gazed at during hanami are usually those of the somei yoshino variety which is a species slowly hybridized in Japan during the 18th century. So, in a sense the Japanese do have their-own native cherry tree.
It is thought that the origins of the sakura in Japanese culture come from China where it was not the cherry blossom so much but rather plum blossoms (which are of the same genus) that were so admired. The plum became popular in China during the Tang dynasty (618 AD to 907 AD) which is the golden age of ancient Chinese civilization and they became an important element in Chinese culture.
During the Nara period in the 8th century which was oriented towards Chinese culture the Japanese preferred the earlier appearing, darker plum blossoms. Willy Atma Djuana who has a wide knowledge of Oriental ceramics and artifacts as well as Indonesian history says, “Plum blossoms appear in February when the ground is still covered in frost so they are associated with good health and overcoming the adversities of winter. They also represent prosperity and guard against evil spirits. I have a vase with plum blossoms on it. It is a blue and white double gourd vase with plum flowers on cracked ice from the transitioning Ming-Qing period.”
It was plum blossoms that started the hanami tradition in Japan. Although later their place was overtaken by the sakura, they have remained a beloved blossom also in Japan where they are called baika or ume, after their fruit.
“There is another famous motif with plum blossoms,” commented Willy Atma Djuana. “At the end of the Sung dynasty artist Chao Meng-chien painted what was to become both a Chinese and Japanese auspicious design frequently seen on ceramics, of a plum tree, pine tree and bamboo which he called The Three Friends.”
It was only in the Heian period (794-1185) that Japanese attention swung to the sakura seeing them as symbols of beauty, life and the spirit of Japan. Hanami was at first limited to the Imperial court. In the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji there are descriptions of a court cherry blossom banquet. “Later more people like samurai warriors for example began cherry blossom watching but it was only in the Edo Period from the 17th till the mid-19th century that ordinary people began to participate in hanami,” explained Kenichiro Matsuhisa. “Many of our present day traditions originate from that era. In the Edo era there were very few wars and it was a very stable period for Japan. During this time Japan was also closed to the outside world allowing Japanese culture the opportunity to mature and so, many cultural traditions come from that period.”
The cherry tree is rather special in that when its flowers are blooming there are barely any leaves on the tree. It is only after the blossoms are gone that the leaves really appear visible. So, in that way it differs from other trees. Like Japanese culture which expresses its beauty in a certain austere simplicity and plainness, sakura blossoms are modest in their pale pink almost white colour. There is nothing flamboyant about them. Although the Japanese hold a deep sentimentality with regard to these flowers, they are not considered romantic flowers like the red rose which is strong and straight forward in its proclamation of love.
Kenichiro Matsuhisa says that if a man offered a Japanese woman sakura blossoms while courting her he would be considered slightly mad. The Japanese love for the sakura blossom is not a romantic love, but a different sort of love that pertains to the spirit of Japan, to the past and to the future, to hope and yet also nostalgia and sadness, and finally to the tantalizing depths of the aesthetic austereness of Japanese culture.
The blossoms reach their peak in about two weeks after they first start to bloom and then the flowers start to fade and drop. They have therefore, only a very brief span of life and so in Japan they also symbolize the shortness of life. This is why they are planted at war memorials. During the Second World War the military used them in their campaign to entice Japanese young men to die for their country. The falling cherry blossoms symbolized the sacrificing deaths of young soldiers. Before battle, soldiers, especially the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War would often cry out to each other, “I shall see you again under the sakura trees…”
They were referring to the cherry trees planted around the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo. It is a Shinto war shrine built by the Meiji Emperor in 1869 after the Boshin War or Japanese Revolution broke out for those who fought and died for the Emperor. Later it was used for the dead who had fought for Japan in other wars as well. There is a Shinto principle that when a very outstanding person dies their soul will become a god. During the Second World War the Japanese military used this belief to tell Japanese soldiers that after dying in battle their souls would return to the cherry trees of Yasukuni as gods. So, it is these sakuras that so many young soldiers preparing to die for their country were referring to. The shrine was once known as the Tōkyō Shōkonsha or “shrine to summon the souls”.
An eminent image of the Yasukuni war shrine is the Imperial chrysanthemum but it is the cherry blossoms that call out to the dead. For it is here that the cherry blossom takes on its most poignant and saddest meaning…it is the tragedy of the many lives betrayed by the Japanese Army through its chilling glorification of death; a betrayal that culminated in the sacrifice of the flower of Japanese youth on the bloody battle fields of the Second World War…
Our fate is mostly written in sand, determined by the decisions we take – but a small part of it is written in stone and is beyond our control. Life hands us our roles to play and our worth is determined by how we deal with the cards we are dealt, which we cannot change.
In the evolution of cultures the Samurai culture was one that had to give way for it is a culture of war. The Last Samurai, encapsulates this perfectly in the scene where the Samurai is about to enter a cabinet session and is asked to first remove his sword. He insists that it was this sword which for centuries had defended the cabinet and the Emperor. He is told, “We do not need your sword to defend us. We now have the law to defend us.”
Life gave him a role where his Samurai culture was forced to slowly give way to the cultures of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution but this does not mean that there were not also some very valuable and beautiful things in his way of life and that is of course, the tragedy of it. Those were the cards he was dealt and he played them gracefully and courageously to the best of his ability. Towards the end of the film as he lies defeated on the battle field the wind carries on its breath the gentle sakura blossoms and as he gazes at them with dying eyes he finally comes to realize, “Every blossom is perfect…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)