Two natural facts have had a disproportionate impact on Japanese culture: cherry blossoms are beautiful, and they fall.
Cherry blossoms, wrote the scholar-poet and shogunal mandarin Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1828), “seem especially suited to the ways of our country, with branches so gentle, flowers so delicate in shape, and hues so simple that the total effect is perfect beyond belief.”
An interesting character, Sadanobu — “a conscientious and, it would appear, benevolent statesman,” the eminent British historian George Sansom wrote of him (in “Japan: A Short Cultural History,” 1931). As the shogun’s senior counselor from 1787 to ’94 during a particularly acute economic crisis, he “issued an astonishing series of restrictive edicts forbidding almost every form of expenditure by almost every kind of person. … Ordering women to dress their own hair, he enjoined professional coiffeurs to become washerwomen. … He awarded prizes for chastity, piety and similar virtues.”
Retiring in 1794, Sadanobu devoted his leisure to literary pursuits. “Even knowing that the cherry blossom supposedly was unique to our country,” he wrote in an essay titled “On Blossoms” (1818), “I thought it must surely exist in China as well and did a good deal of searching, only to find no Chinese paintings of cherry blossoms and not a poem that seemed to refer to them. Thus I conclude that cherry blossoms do not exist in China.”
The supposedly pure, unsullied “Japaneseness” of hauntingly evanescent, overpoweringly beautiful sakura has been a comfort and an inspiration to many down the centuries. “In ancient times,” wrote the nativist poet-scholar Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769), “people’s hearts were direct and straightforward. … When emotions rose up in their hearts they would put them into words and sing, and called this poetry. … But then the ideas and words of babbling China and India were blended together and introduced into our country. … Things became complex, so the hearts of those here who used to be straightforward … turned wicked. … In ancient poetry, though, the teachings and words composed by people 1,000 years ago remain completely unchanged with the passage of time, just as autumn leaves and cherry blossoms are the same now as in the past.”
Foreign “ideas and words” versus native “poetry” — such is Kamo’s contrast. “Our poetry,” wrote the 10th-century poet Ki no Tsurayuki in his introduction to the “Kokin Wakashu,” an Imperial anthology he helped compile, “appeared at the dawn of creation”.
Poetry is as “Japanese” as the cherry blossoms which helped make the Japanese poets. Poetry, said Tsurayuki, “moves heaven and earth without effort, stirs emotion in the invisible spirits and gods, brings harmony to the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.”
It is what prayer is in some other traditions. It is inseparable from nature. Nature by its nature inspires poetry, which by its nature deepens reverence for and knowledge of nature — not scientific knowledge, which had no place in mainstream Japanese thinking until modern times, but knowledge of mono no aware — the pathos of things.
The “recognition of the special beauty inherent in evanescence, worldly misfortune and ‘the pathos of things’ (mono no aware),” wrote British historian Ivan Morris in “The Nobility of Failure” (1975), “in many ways replaces the blithe Western belief in the possibility of ‘happiness.’”
Sensitivity to mono no aware is no mere affectation. Kamo’s disciple, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), wrote of it in 1763 in “My Personal View of Poetry”: “Those who govern the people and the country must have a detailed knowledge of the conditions of the hearts of ordinary people and know mono no aware. … Those who do not know mono no aware have no sympathy for anything and are often hardhearted and cruel.”
“For example,” he elaborates the same year in “The Essence of the Tale of Genji”: “When seeing splendid and beautiful cherry blossoms in full bloom, to appreciate the blossoms as beautiful is to know the heart of the thing. When discovering the beauty of the blossoms, we are moved by their beauty. This is mono no aware. … The essence of cherry trees is simply always to appreciate the mono no aware of the blossoms.”
How differently observation and thinking developed in the West! Pagan or Judeo-Christian, early Western writings have few thoughts to spare for natural beauty. The Biblical Book of Genesis has God affirming of His creation that is “good” — not beautiful. The first of the Bible’s strikingly few nature passages, not soaringly lyrical, is not even of this world but of Paradise: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food. The tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
Nor were the classical Greeks or Romans gifted with that special sensitivity to nature that animated the Japanese from their very origins. The Greco-Roman botanist-surgeon Dioscorides (1st century A.D.) set the Western tone for future ages — use over beauty. “Iris,” he wrote in “De Materia Medica” (circa 77), “is so named from the resemblance to the rainbow in heaven. … The roots under are knotty, strong, of a sweet savor … fitting against coughs. … They purge thick humors and choler … and heal torments of the belly.”
“What a place it must have been, that virgin woodland wilderness of all England,” exclaims British historian G.M. Trevelyan (in “A Shortened History of England,” 1942) of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish times from the 7th to 10th centuries. “Had some of them at least the eyes to see the beauty in the midst of which they went about their daily tasks?”
No poetry suggests they did until centuries later, Trevelyan observes, “when Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) and the late medieval ballad-makers at last found a tongue for the race.”
The Japanese race found its tongue much earlier. The 8th century was the age of the “Manyoshu,” the first Japanese poetry anthology (and finest, say many), in which, for example, courtier-poet Mushimaro sings:
“Soaring in white clouds, The cherry trees are in full bloom, Every branch bending with loaded blossoms. But the wind is ceaseless as the peak is lofty, And day after day falls the spring rain; The flowers have scattered from the upper sprays. May the blossoms on the lower branches neither fall nor lose their beauty, Till you, who journey, grass for pillow, Come home again !”
The next poetry anthology, the first Imperial one, came two centuries later. This is the “Kokin Wakashu” (or “Kokinshu”), with an introduction by Ki no Tsurayuki. Its poems are shorter than those in the “Manyoshu,” and brevity has defined Japanese poetry ever since. “Manyoshu” poets were more taken with the plum than with the cherry; in the “Kokinshu” the more delicate cherry comes into its own, the fleeting span of its blossoming heightening its beauty to an almost unbearable pitch. In the cherry, Japanese poets found mono no aware incarnate.
“It is just because they scatter without a trace That cherry blossoms delight us so, For in this world Lingering means ugliness.”
“Does anyone know the dwelling place of the wind, scatterer of flowers? Tell me, that I may go there and deliver a complaint.”
— Sosei the monk (10th century)
“You cherry blossoms, I would like to scatter too, For human beings are but dismal spectacles Once their brief bloom is done.”
— Soku the monk (10th century)
Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010).