Season of special poignancy

Earthquakes, cherry blossoms traditional reminders of mortality

by Joji Sakurai

The Associated Press

The cherry trees will soon blossom in Japan.

It will be a particularly poignant sight. Even in normal times, the “sakura” flowers are a cause for rejoicing tinged with sadness, because they fall at the moment of their greatest beauty. They are the embodiment of a notion that is central to Japanese culture — “hakanasa,” a hard-to-translate word that conveys the fragility, or evanescence, of life.

For Japan, this sense of transience is also a source of strength.

In this time of national grieving, the cherry blossoms will bring home the awareness of hakanasa with a strange kind of force — one that doesn’t strike but sinks into the soul like heat from a hot spring or fire from a sake bottle, bringing sorrow and solace in equal measure.

The fragility of technologically advanced Japan was exposed in the most terrifying way in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast, leaving more than 10,000 people dead, some 17,500 missing and about a half-million homeless, and spawning a nuclear disaster.

Hiroyuki Yoneta, a monger at Tokyo’s bustling Tsukiji fish market, reflected on life’s frailty as he took a break from loading crab and shrimp onto his rickety stall a couple hours before his 4 a.m. opening time.

“Thinking about how these people living normal lives suddenly disappeared, you can’t escape the feeling that humans, like the flowers, are transient things,” Yoneta said.

But consider this Japanese paradox: The delicate cherry blossom was also the symbol of the samurai, the epitome of Japanese valor.

The warrior class liked the flowers because they didn’t cling to life, but rather showed up for the briefest spell, and fell at the peak of their splendor. In this way, they embodied the spirit of bushido — the way of the warrior that combines stoicism, bravery, and self-sacrifice.

These days, people invoke bushido less often than the common man’s down-to-earth version — “gaman.” It means gritting your teeth and just getting on with life. When people refer to Japan’s salarymen as modern-day samurai, it’s taken not so much in a swashbuckling sense but for the way these men in suits endure crushing, monotonous toil, and display unwavering loyalty to a common cause.

And amid death, people of all stripes here are plowing ahead with life, in an orderly and cooperative way. Many are already starting to return to the sites of their devastated homes, and thinking coolheadedly about how to start over amid Japan’s biggest catastrophe since World War II.

Scenes of gaman abound: the homeless family sitting around a makeshift fire as snow falls at night, their stoic faces lit up by orange flames. The old man walking his bicycle through an ankle-high lake of mud, his son’s wedding picture in the basket. Drivers waiting patiently in line for hours for scarce gasoline in quake-ravaged areas.

And so do stories of self-sacrifice.

Kennichi Takeuchi, 81, and his wife, Yukiko, 78, have been living in their tiny black Mitsubishi car since the quake, amid snow and a biting wind — even though they’re just outside a community center packed with refugees.

Yukiko has a bad leg and can’t sleep on the hard wood floor inside. Kennichi, who’s been married to Yukiko for 56 years, isn’t about to seek the comfort of the center.

“We pass the time here in the car,” said Yukiko, her dog, Meg, sitting on her lap. “It’s not so bad.”

The notions of hakanasa and gaman may also have roots in Japan’s traditional awareness of humankind’s powerlessness in the face of almighty nature. It’s a lesson Japan may have started to forget as it put nuclear reactors on shores near fault lines, reclaimed land from Tokyo Bay to build airport extensions, and sent ever-higher buildings into the sky.

But this relationship with nature — a paradox of being at one with it while still in constant antagonism — remains deeply embedded in the Japanese mind.

Part of it has to do with the fact that Japan is so prone to natural disasters: Killer quakes and tsunami have struck time and again. And time and again, the nation has rebuilt.

Anyone who has visited Kyoto will know that Japan was for most of its history a culture of wooden buildings rather than brick and mortar. This tradition of wood brings the Japanese closer to nature — and, because wooden homes can be destroyed so easily, also makes them acutely aware of nature’s force.

“The transience (hakanasa) of human life and the transience of buildings are both caught in mutability’s immeasurable vortex of sadness,” the novelist Keiichiro Hirano wrote in an essay titled “On Mutability.”

This year, that sadness will be driven home by the fact so many thousands will never see another “hanami” cherry blossom viewing.

And there may be comfort because amid horror, there are fleeting scenes of beauty: the hug of reunited family members. The smile of a relief worker handing out a blanket. And soon — even amid the rubble — clouds of petals drifting to the ground where homes once stood and laughter once rang out.

Haruhiko Fukuda, a squat man with a shaved head and gentle eyes who runs a century-old dumpling shop a few steps from fishmonger Yoneta’s stall, sees hope.

“After the cold (season) . . . you have the cherry blossoms and a change of heart,” Fukuda said. “I hope that will help spur our rebuilding. Step by step, fixing something that’s broken is a huge task, and as a first step we need some inspirations to rebuild.”

In the days to come the flowers will bloom in the south, appear soon afterward in Tokyo, and drift toward the ravaged north in April — poet T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month” — in a wave of whitish-pink that may reach its peak just as this nation’s people emerge from collective shell shock and a deeper pain, if that’s possible, sinks in.