Oh, to die under a cherry-blossom tree in spring


It’s over for Tokyo, that brief period in spring known as hanami no kisetsu (the season to sit under a cherry-blossom tree and eat and drink oneself into oblivion).

No more of all that blue tarp on pavements and in parks, all that singing and clapping into the night. No more college girls vomiting into the bushes as hopeful guys hover nearby, waiting to whip out their hankies.

Ah, hanami! What is it about the sakura (cherry blossoms) that penetrates the innermost core of the Japanese, pressing all kinds of buttons and making us behave so . . . weirdly?

Entire weather reports are devoted to how far the sakura zensen (blossom front) has advanced in its progress up the archipelago from the southernmost tip. News footage shows Okinawans whooping it up on blue tarp while people in Kagoshima say, “Right, our turn in two weeks.” Tokyoites, meanwhile, fidget with envy — and Hokkaido folks must resign themselves to waiting another full month.

Up and down Japan, the customary salutation at this time of year is: “Sakura wa mo mimashitaka (Have you seen the blossoms yet?).” People who usually don’t give nature a second thought start looking up at trees for those lovely pink clumps — and upon finding them, break into grins or start drooling. You see what I mean? Weird.

So obsessed are the Japanese that they’ve incorporated the sakura into the country’s language and culture, no doubt to tide themselves over during the other 11 months of the year when real blossoms are unavailable. Sakura saku (the blossoms have blossomed) means that something went well or gave cause for celebration. Sakura chiru (the blossoms have scattered) means the exact opposite.

In gangster lingo, a “sakura” is a person who pretends to be an outsider in a shady deal, engineering events from the sidelines so that they work to his boss’s best advantage. In the argot of street vendors, a “sakura” is a buddy of the vendor, posing as a customer and buying his product, encouraging bona fide customers to do the same.

During World War II, soldiers of the same corps called themselves doki no sakura (blossoms of the same year), implying (and, perhaps, convincing themselves) that they were happy to fall and die for their country.

Which brings us to that part of the Japanese psyche that links sakura with death and violence. The poet-monk Saigyo (1118-90) wrote that his one wish was to die in spring, underneath the cherry blossoms. The Edo Period philosopher Motoori Norinaga devoted the first half of his life to describing the adrenaline rush afforded by sakura, and the latter half to specifying the exact type of cherry tree that would preside over his grave. Others not so famous have hung themselves from the branches of sakura, buried their enemy’s corpses among the trees’ roots, committed seppuku (ritual suicide) or held duels as the sakura petals came fluttering down in the strong spring winds.

Most great kabuki dramas call for sakura petals to be flying madly on stage during the inevitable death scenes — and the more the better. This sakura fubuki (blossom blizzard) is a favorite dramatic moment and had long been considered a metaphor for Japanese machismo.

Sakura is even a favorite tattoo motif, and the more flamboyant like to combine the fragile pink blossom with blood-red peonies on a field of electric blue, all on the same broad back.

It wasn’t so long ago, even, that men would try and woo women with lines such as “Hana wa sakuragi, otoko wa [own name],” meaning, “Just as sakura is the best flower there is, I happen to be the best of the male species.”

Wow! Does that go straight to your heart or what?