The cherry blossom season will soon arrive, and with it the reflections and lessons that go with the yearly event. As Japan begins the season of enjoying the cherry blossoms, the differences from last year start to appear as well. Part of the excitement of spring comes from never quite knowing exactly when the blossoming peak will be, just as part of the effect comes from thinking about what the flowers may symbolize.

This year, a rivalry of sorts sprang up between the official Japan Meteorological Agency and the private company Weathernews. The two services use different methods for predicting the blossom peak: One relies on fully automated, scientific studies and the other on in-the-park human monitors taking cell-phone photos. Whichever is trusted more, the cherry blossom specialists seem more accurate than the economists, who failed to predict the current global economic crisis.

Regardless of the accuracy of predictions, one wonders how people will feel about this year’s cherry blossoms. Will they serve as an optimistic symbol of spring’s renewal, or as a bitter reminder of better times past? Sitting and viewing the blossoms may distract from financial worries for some while reminding others that there is more to life than just money. In these tough times, any consolation is welcome.

No matter what individual reactions may be, the joy of this hanami season will surely be restrained amid the ongoing layoffs, cutbacks and smaller budgets. The annual starting point for new jobs will seem much less celebratory than before. Some companies may not even have new recruits to perform their traditional first-year duty of staking out a place for the company party. Quiet reflection may be the most common activity.

But then again, the cherry blossom season can offer hope and the promise of better times ahead. In a highly commodified society like Japan, cherry blossom viewing may be one of the last truly free activities. For the majority of people experiencing extremely difficult times, the comfort of beauty, at virtually no charge, is a chance to start reconsidering basic values and trying to predict what lies ahead.

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