Cherry blossoms are not only beautiful flowers, they are also important cultural symbols in Japan

by Lalaine Ignao
April 13, 2018

Cherry blossoms

Those of us in Seattle are no stranger to cherry blossoms. Every April, these flowers show themselves all over the city, letting us know that spring is just around the corner. For us, they’re simply beautiful flowers but, across the world in Japan, cherry blossoms are also laden with cultural significance and meaning.

Cherry blossoms are called sakura in Japanese. Sakura only blooms in the spring for a short period of time and at the peak of their beauty, the flowers begin to fall, reminding people that although life is beautiful, it is also ephemeral. They serve as a visual metaphor to appreciate life and all that it provides. This concept echoes in many aspects of Japanese history, art and lifestyle.

For the students in Japan, the fully bloomed cherry blossoms also represent a celebration and welcoming of a brand new start as students begin the new school year in April, unlike the United States. Because of these sentimental connections to the sakura, Japanese culture holds it very near and dear to the heart and sakura is still a very popular name for girls.

With the short life span of the cherry blossom representing the transience of life, a major theme of Buddhism, the sakura became associated with the religion. It was adopted by the aristocratic warriors of feudal Japan first and later on by all the military classes. The sakura came to represent how precarious a warrior’s life is, just like how a slight breeze can cause the blossom to fall.

The concept also became embodied during the Heian period by the mono no aware, meaning “empathy towards things,” to describe the great sensitivity towards everything caught in the moment like the sunset, love at first sight or even with cherry blossoms.

Japan has more than 200 different kinds of sakura, with somei yoshino as its most popular. It has white flowers with a hint of pink and forms a canopy that lasts a week. Some also make beverages with the cherry blossom called sakurayu or sakura tea. This drink is traditionally served at weddings because of the water is crystal clear, symbolizing a healthy marriage.

The time has come again for the viewing of cherry blossom trees, also known as Sakura Matsuri or Hanami (flower viewing festival) in Japan. During the festival, people like to go out and simply enjoy the cherry blossoms by having a picnic with friends and family underneath the trees or even having a party and drinking with coworkers at night.

Cherry trees bloom throughout the country of Japan but the city of Hirosaki has become the most famous for the amount of cherry blossoms it holds. Each year, the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival brings tens of thousands of visitors. This festival welcomes the beginning of spring, a symbol of hope and renewal that originated during the Nara period in the 8th century.

In Seattle, the most famous cherry trees are located in the Quad at the University of Washington. Although their peak has passed, we still have the Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival this weekend to enjoy and learn more about this beautiful flower and the culture that gave it meaning.