Commentary / Japan

Hanami a reminder of life's fleeting nature

by Yoko Ishikura

The period from March to April is the time for many significant events in this country. The official government calendar ends on March 31 and a new fiscal year begins on April 1, and many companies wrap up their business year on the same cycle. Commencement ceremonies take place at schools in late March and the new academic year starts the next month. April is also the time for new employees to start at companies and transfers tend to take place around this time. Many may equate the start of April with spring, the season that heralds the beginning of many things. The April 1 announcement of the name for the new Imperial era, Reiwa, may have made the season even more memorable this year.

This is also the season for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. Although cherry trees bloom not only in Japan but in many other parts of the world, sakura trees seem to have a special appeal to people in this country.

As we approach the season, media reports forecast when and where the sakura will be in full bloom — with the “sakura front” moving northward through the country over the course of weeks. In Tokyo, the best dates usually fall within a period of about two weeks. Many outdoor events such as hanami picnics and parties are arranged to match those dates.

With the effects of climate change, however, it has become a bit of headache for those in charge to arrange for such events. It gets problematic when a hanami party has been organized but no cherry trees are in bloom — or after the petals have already fallen, turning the event into an “after hanami” party.

In recent years, the hanami season in Japan has seen an increase in the number of inbound tourists. In 2017, April was the month with the largest number of visitors from North America and Europe, and the sale of package tours offered by travel agents chasing the cherry blossoms rose 20 to 30 percent. The inbound travelers seem to enjoy not only the cherry blossoms but the community spirit found among the locals.

Looking at the studies on the history of this custom in Japan by several sources, such as the International Research Center of Japanese Studies, it appears that the practice of hanami among the public (and not limited to the aristocrats and samurai) began during the Edo Period under the rule of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the 8th leader of the Tokugawa shogunate. He ordered large numbers of cherry trees planted in Edo and promoted the practice so that ordinary people could have picnics while appreciating the flowers.

Cherry blossoms provide an opportunity to get together with friends and colleagues to enjoy drinks and food even in the daytime while appreciating the beauty of nature under the blooming cherry trees. A popular hanami site near the Imperial Palace is packed with people in the evening during the peak blossom days, resembling Shibuya at midnight.

Hanami has a long tradition, but some changes can be seen in people’s behavior. According to several surveys (including one by Air Trip covering nearly 800 men and women from teenagers to those in their 70s,) almost half the people enjoy hanami every year. Another survey, by research firm PR Times covering some 1,200 people, 75 percent said they wanted to enjoy hanami. Asked why, they said because it feels like spring, they like cherry blossoms, and they want to have a good time with families and friends.

People seem to enjoy hanami with their significant others and families (60 to 80 percent), followed by friends (25 percent). Some 11-15 percent enjoy hanami alone. Hanami parties as company-organized events, which used to be quite prevalent, are still being held, but almost half of the participants say they attend out of duty.

There seems to be a generational gap in what people see as a good hanami party. The younger generation (in their 20s) is interested in places and food from a visual perspective. They pick sites and food and drinks that look appealing on Instagram. While the younger generation tends to share their experiences with friends and others, older generations prefer to enjoy hanami in small groups and with close friends.

On the other hand, close to 20 percent of people have not gone to hanami events in the past five years (according to the Air Trip survey). And those in their 20s are not as interested in them as older generations (in their 50s or older), according to a Weathernews survey. Such people say the popular sites are often crowded, the outdoor facilities are poor, and that they suffer from pollen. Now, likely because of their pollen allergy, people can enjoy hanami festivities indoors with the aid of technology.

Why do people in Japan seem to find a special meaning in hanami? Reasons often cited are that they crave for outdoor activities in nice weather; The practice enables people to appreciate the four seasons, and that hanami offers a chance to have a good time eating and drinking outdoors.

I also think there is something about the short life of the cherry blossoms that appeals to the mentality of the Japanese. The peak of the gorgeous blossoms last a very brief time, and then they go away. It reminds us of the need to shine and disappear quietly — in other words, it is the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms that seems to have special appeal.

The other day I read a column written by Fumio Yamazaki, a doctor at St. John’s Hospice, Sakuramachi Hospital in Tokyo. He wrote that hanami is a great occasion for patients at his hospice to appreciate nature. The blossoms’ beauty moves everyone’s heart, but even more so those of the patients and their families. They know that a majority of the patients there will not survive to the next hanami season.

My experience of appreciating cherry blossoms with my late husband before his surgery reminds me of the same feeling I felt then. I wondered whether he would be able to survive and see cherry blossoms the next year. Looking at the photos, I know how the hospice patients and those around them must have felt. The cherry blossoms’ overwhelming beauty and short fragile life has a special meaning for those who appreciate life.

Hanami can and should serve as the reminder of the fragile and transient nature of life, with the cherry blossoms’ short lives reflected in lovely falling petals, and the unpredictability of peak days reflecting the power of nature beyond human control. We should enjoy the moment’s incredible beauty while it lasts.

This is the last hanami season of the Heisei Era. We could reflect how Heisei was free of wars involving Japan, unlike the preceding Showa Era, but at the same time, it was an era of slow decline in the nation’s competitiveness and its position in the world. If we can make the last hanami of Heisei a reminder of the importance of living every day fully and with big heart, we can view our lives as precious and think of what we can do to contribute to the world. We can then review and reflect on our activities and life if and when we greet the cherry blossoms next year.

Are we living our lives fully with the will to make the world better place? Life is too short to waste.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.

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