Sakura: Japan's Unofficial National Flower
Thinking about a flower to represent Japan, sakura (cherry blossom) is definitely the best choice. The association between sakura and Japan is so strong that many people would think that it is the national flower of Japan, though it is not. In fact, the chrysanthemum is the national flower of Japan because it symbolizes the throne of the Emperor of Japan. However, the popularity of sakura makes it Japan’s unofficial national flower. It is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, history, affecting art, literature, and the spirit of the Yamato people (the name given for the ethnicity of Japanese people).
What is Sakura?
In Japan, sakura is the flower of spring because it makes spring one of the most beautiful and colorful seasons of the year. It’s a symbol of hope and renewal. In Tokyo, sakura usually bloom from late March to early April, which is when sakura brings the vitality and optimism of spring to Tokyo. Every year during this time, people will talk about sakura, appreciate their beauty, and take pictures of the blossoms with their cell phones. Store decorations and product packaging are also adorned with these pink flowers, and sakura-flavored candies, snacks, and drinks are sold everywhere.
The two most common species of sakura in Japan are the Somei-yoshino and Kawazu-zakura. Somei-yoshino is known for its almost completely white petals with only a slight hint of pink. It can be seen along rivers, with its beautiful reflection on the water. Kawazu-zakura are normally planted in the Kawazu region. Their petals are pinker than those of Somei-yoshino. They can be said to be the earliest-blooming sakura in Japan, which bloom from late February to early March.
Sakura in Japanese Religion
Sakura trees do not bear any fruit, instead, they flower beautiful sakura, which bloom once a year and only last for about ten days. These pretty white-pink flowers that cover the whole country are a symbol of Japanese culture. The two largest religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism, both of whose teachings are reflected in the sakura in some way.
Shintoism is a polytheistic religion and everything can become a kami (a god in Shintoism). According to Shintoist teachings, spirits, or kami, would inhabit ancient trees. In Japan, there are three thousand-year-old sakura trees, and sakura trees over 100 years old can be found everywhere. They are believed to be sacred and anyone who hurts them will bring misfortune upon themselves.
It also coincides with Buddhist philosophy. The short life span of sakura symbolizes the inevitability of human death. Then, the beauty of sakura is a metaphor for the lively yet fleeting life of human beings. Therefore, one should live in the present and treasure the present life.
Sakura in Japanese Culture
Samurai are the warriors of feudal Japan that originated in the Edo period. Similar to the European knights, samurai have to adhere to the Bushido, a strict moral code based on several virtues, such as righteousness, courage, benevolence, courtesy, sincerity, honor, and loyalty. Only by fulfilling these virtues and disciplines could a samurai maintain his honor, and a samurai who lost his honor had to commit hara-kiri (the Japanese ritual of suicide). Bushido is an integral part of the Japanese national spirit. It upholds an attitude of living to death and appreciates the inevitability of death. Bushido encourages “death without remorse, death without scruples, death without hesitation”. Therefore, many samurai die at a young age.
What does this have to do with sakura? Sakura is a flower that fades at its most brilliant moment. The beauty and fragility of sakura and samurai are so similar that sakura becomes a flower to represent a samurai's life. The samurai believed that the falling sakura symbolized the end of their short lives. This feminine beauty of “of sorrow” and the masculinity of “dying willingly” represent the perfect blend of outer goodness and inner truth, which is Japanese cultural understanding of sakura.