20 March 2018
In Japan, a curious mood takes over. The pavements and parks are lined with blue tarpaulins, sake flows freely, and eyes look skyward, awaiting the first sign of spring. That sign, of course, is the cherry blossom: a fixture of Asian iconography generally, yet, at the same time, quintessentially Japanese.
Hanami no kisetu (the season to sit under a cherry-blossom tree and eat and drink oneself into oblivion) is a fixation. Entire weather reports are dedicated to the spread of the flower (sakura, in the local language); fizzy drinks, snacks, and other throwaway items brand themselves with it; cappuccinos find themselves anointed with blossom, rather than the usual chocolate powder.
Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.—Richard Powell
Today’s Japan celebrates the sakura in its own way. You will find it in the kitsch commerciality of Hello Kitty Sakura porcelain, buoyant pink and littered with prints of the eponymous feline alongside cherry blossoms. You will find it adorning the flesh of the young, a popular theme for flamboyant tattoos. Sakura may still inspire haiku – but it is just as likely to inspire the latest branded Pepsi, too.
Traditions originating centuries earlier in Zen temples mingle within a post-war pop-culture revolution: karaoke meets katana. Riven by nuclear holocaust, then thrust forward by economic outperformance; relishing its connection to the past while hurtling at breakneck speed into modernity; Japanese society does not stay still. It is a complex intertwining of elements that celebrate the new.
Japan is typified by creativity, originality, and brilliance: its skyscrapers claw at the heavens, its cuisine has travelled the world, and it knows no equal in regards to robotics and other industries. Yet, in spring, you will find the Japanese – be they business people, master chefs, or engineering students – taking part in hanami picnics outside: eating and drinking under the cherry blossoms.
Spring is the ultimate iconoclast: it disrupts the barren landscape of winter with green shoots and flowers, sun to melt the snow. It is a reminder that the new will always strip away old forms and instantiate a new order. Like the sakura, it is the story of life, death, and life once more.