“If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit, I would say it is wild cherry blossoms glowing in the morning sun!”
— Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), nativist thinker and poet
The cherry blossom is not just another pretty flower. Pause to consider, as you feast, drink and carol beneath the blushing petals this season, how ancient a rite of spring your frolics are perpetuating.
Not infinitely ancient — the Nara Period (710-784), being Chinese in orientation, imitated China in preferring the darker, more fragrant and more assertive plum blooming a few weeks earlier on similarly leafless branches.
It was courtiers of the succeeding Heian Period (794-1185) who began making of ethereal sakura (cherry blossoms) what they later became in all their glory — living poems, living symbols of beauty, life, evanescence, death, “Japanese spirit.”
But how stately, how ceremoniously elegant Heian celebrations were in comparison with our modern madcap revels!
“… the festival of the cherry blossoms took place in the Grand Hall. The empress and the crown prince were seated to the left and right of the throne. … Adepts at Chinese poetry, princes and high courtiers and others, drew lots to fix the rhyme schemes for their poems.
“I have drawn ‘spring,’ said Genji, his voice finely resonant in even so brief a statement.
” … The emperor had of course ordered the concert to be planned with the greatest care. ‘Spring Warbler, ‘ which came as the sun was setting, was uncommonly fine.”
— Court lady Murasaki Shikibu in her novel “The Tale of Genji” (11th century)
The sakura banquet retained its aristocratic aura until the rambunctious Edo Period (1603-1867), when commoners, in their coarse and spontaneous way, began to ape their betters.
Long before that, in the 14th century, the priest Kenko, in jottings known to posterity as the “Grasses of Idleness,” complained of “rustic boors who take all pleasure grossly. They squirm their way through the crowd to get under the trees; they stare at the blossoms with eyes for nothing else; they drink sake and compose linked verse; and finally they breathlessly break off great branches and cart them away.”
Rustic boors are always with us. It’s a wonder that beauty survives their incursions, Sometimes it doesn’t.
“The cherries’ only fault: the crowds that gather when they bloom”
— Saigyo, 12th-century poet
We know what our modern hanami (blossom-viewing) parties are, how grossly we take our own pleasures — and why not? Spring is spring; life awakens from its long winter sleep; the cherries are lovely; who can help flinging decorum to the spring breezes and, in our natural exuberance, risking the disapproval of the likes of Kenko?
In a business culture that makes of one’s company a second family (if not a first), many hanami outings are office-centered. A few years ago the weekly magazine Shukan Post described a hanami gathering of trading company co-workers, male and female.
Couldn’t they get drunk on the beauty of the blossoms alone? No, of course not. Even in the Heian Period the sake flowed liberally, and Genji, after the banquet at which he shone so resplendently, went not home to bed but off to pursue a most impolitic dalliance — the cause soon afterward of his downfall and exile from the capital. His career was years in regaining its upward trajectory.
To return to Shukan Post: Drinking turned to chugging and grew competitive. “Losers disrobe!” shouted the men. No less animated, the women chugged with gusto, but soon found themselves at a disadvantage. Well, it was all in good fun, but ended, alas, in official reprimands for everyone involved — not for sexual harassment, for there was none, but because, in the eyes of top management, the company’s reputation had been sullied.
Had they never been young, those top managers? Didn’t they know that cherry blossoms, immoderately beautiful, stir immoderate responses, provoke immoderate behavior?
Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), lord of the province of Kai (in present-day Yamanashi Prefecture), was deep in warlike preparations — this was the Sengoku Jidai, the “Age of the Country at War” — when the abbot of a monastery in a remote part of his domain sent him an invitation: “The cherries are just beginning to bloom, and I have already set up a fine seat for you where you can enjoy the glorious spring.”
Shingen sent his apologies — war was imminent and he must decline. But the abbot insisted, and Shingen gave in. Later, Shingen wrote a grateful poem: “If I had not had this invitation from my friend, how greatly I should have missed this magnificent sight of the cherry blossoms!”
Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki, who relates the incident in “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959), comments, “Such a disinterested enjoyment of Nature as shown by Shingen … even in the midst of warlike activities, is known as furyu, and those without this feeling of furyu are classed among the most uncultured in Japan.”
“When cherry trees bloom at Onoe men’s wives bloom too with a new pride in their appearance, and pretty girls go strolling with their proud mothers, not so much to see the spring blossoms as to be seen themselves. That is the way people are these days … “
— Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), “Five Women Who Loved Love” (1686)
“These days” — we are now in the plebeian Edo Period, a time of money-grubbing merchant upstarts shamelessly plundering samurai wealth and besmirching samurai culture — so at least it seemed to the samurai, fish out of water as peace settled over the land. Saikaku was the premier novelist of town life in the new age. Spring rites were his special delight:
“Forgetting the hour for departure, forgetting everything, the picnickers opened up casks of wine and proclaimed drunkenness man’s greatest delight. … At this juncture the other people in the grove suddenly gathered round to watch a passing band of entertainers with a big drum and lion dancers. … The girls were fascinated by it and abandoned all their other amusements to crowd around, applaud, and cry for encore after encore” — little suspecting that the whole gaudy spectacle had been arranged by an amorous young couple to get the crowd out of the way for “a brief moment of consummation” !
“When the night breeze blows the blossoms” — it is easy to slip from the 17th century to the 20th, so little do some things change — “it is a very striking view to see white petals falling down like snowflakes over the lanterns.”
This is from a late-1920s guidebook to Tokyo’s famous Yoshiwara red-light district, written “in strange and entertaining English” by “a certain T. Fujimoto,” explain authors Stephen and Ethel Longstreet, who quote it at length in “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans and the Pleasure Quarter” (2009).
“Towards evening,” T. Fujimoto continues, “the male and the female on their way back from picnic to Ueno and Mukojima (the two places most famous for cherry flowers) pour in here to see the night cherry flowers of Yoshiwara. Specially wives and girls like to visit Yoshiwara in this season, because it is the best opportunity for them to have a full observation on brothels and harlots, as they can go round the brothel streets in company with their men.”
Kenko would have sniffed, but Saikaku, that expansive spirit, would have understood perfectly.