To everyone’s delight, cherry blossoms in Japan are already blooming as families and friends unite for the highly anticipated, centuries-old tradition of hanami (cherry blossom-viewing). The explosion of pale pink petals is a euphoric sight to behold, but did you know there’s more to their splendour than meets the eye? The meaning of cherry blossoms in Japan runs deep, making the country’s national flower a cultural icon revered around the world not just for its overwhelming beauty, but for its enduring expression of life, death and renewal.
What Are Cherry Blossoms?
Cherry blossoms, also known as sakura in Japan, are the small, delicate pink flowers produced by cherry blossom trees. The springtime bloom is a lavish spectacle but remarkably brief; after only two weeks, they drop to the ground and wither, falling like snow with the ebb and flow of the winds. As flowers native to Asia, they can also be found in China, South Korea and India, but today they enjoy worldwide blooming.
From the U.S. and Canada to Australia and New Zealand, sakura attracts and captivates an international audience.
What Do Cherry Blossoms Mean?
Cherry blossoms hold elevated status in China, signifying love and the female mystique (beauty, strength and sexuality), but nowhere in the world are the elusive flowers more cherished than in Japan, home to thousands of cherry blossom trees. The floral imagery permeates Japanese paintings, film and poetry.
Every April, families and friends across the country ceremoniously gather in large groups for hanami and elaborate feasts with music under giant, feathery canopies of soft pink.
But what are they honouring and celebrating, exactly?
The brilliance, fragility and transience of life
Tied to the Buddhist themes of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present, Japanese cherry blossoms are a timeless metaphor for human existence. Blooming season is powerful, glorious and intoxicating, but tragically short-lived — a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.
Why don’t we marvel at our own passing time on earth with the same joy and passion? Why do we neglect to revel in life when it can end at any moment, or in the grace surrounding us everywhere: our family, friends, a stranger’s smile, a child’s laugh, new flavours on our plate or the scent of green grass? It is time, cherry blossoms remind us, to pay attention.
In Japanese culture, sakura as the embodiment of beauty and mortality can be traced back centuries. No one in history personified this metaphor more than the samurai, the warriors of feudal Japan who lived by bushido (“the way of the warrior”) — a strict moral code of respect, honour and discipline. It was their duty to not only exemplify and preserve these virtues in life, but to appreciate the inevitability of death without fearing it — in battle, it came all too soon for the samurai. A fallen cherry blossom or petal, it’s believed, symbolized the end of their short lives.
During World War II, cherry blossoms took on a similar meaning for Japanese pilots who painted their kamikaze warplanes with the flower imagery before embarking on suicide missions to “die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor”.
Sakura are no longer embraced for military or self-destructive purposes; today, they’re widely valued for philosophical and aesthetic reasons.
Sakura are also revered as a symbol of rebirth. Hanami was in fact established as a ritual as early as 710, long before the rise of feudal Japan. Believed to represent the mountain deities that transformed into the gods of rice paddies in Japanese folk religions, cherry blossom trees signified agricultural reproduction. It was during this time the Japanese travelled to the mountains to worship the trees every spring, then transplanted them to inhabited areas.
Sakura have therefore always signalled the beginning of spring, a time of renewal and optimism. With the blooming season coinciding with the beginning of the Japanese calendar year, they also bring hope and new dreams at a time when students start their first day of school and employees their first day of a new job. When cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the future is bursting with possibilities.
The Ritual of Hanami
Hanami in Japan isn’t just any springtime activity, it’s a national pastime with deep cultural and religious roots.
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When the Japanese gather under the cherry blossom trees every April, they’re not just admiring the aesthetic attributes of a flower. Over tables of sake-filled glasses, bento boxes and sweet mochi, they’re seizing the day. They’re wringing the beauty out of life. They’re commemorating the loss of loved ones and reflecting on their own precious lives with a sense of wonder while shedding the past to usher in a bright, promising new year.
Ultimately, the meaning of cherry blossoms teaches the Japanese they are sakura. We all are.