Cherry blossoms, impermanence, and pandemics

Mickey Adolphson is Keidanren Professor of Japanese Studies at Cambridge. He recalls his first visit to Japan, during the cherry blossom season, and reflects on ideas of impermanence in the age of coronarvirus. 

Professor Adolphson with his latest ikebana in Kyoto

Late March and early April is usually a time for cherry blossom viewing – hanami – parties in Japan. People flock to parks, gardens, and other outdoor areas to enjoy cotton-like clouds of flowers floating just above their heads in pink and white shades. If you imagine Japanese people of all ages wandering around, quietly admiring the blossoms, you would be wrong. Rather, the typical outing consists of tarpaulins, karaoke boxes, and plenty of Japanese sake and beer as parties of people cover the ground around the trees.

Cherry blossoms – sakura – hold a special significance for me since it was during the hanami season in 1986 that I first arrived in Japan after two years of studying the language in my native Sweden. Japan was catching the world’s attention, and mine.  US auto workers symbolically thrashed a Japanese car in Detroit;  Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films (or as we called them, ‘Wild East’ films) were gaining popularity. As a global power, economically and culturally, Japan was on the rise.

Hanami in Tokyo

However, I was drawn to Japan’s medieval history, and took a leap of faith in abandoning my interest in medieval France and began studying Japanese. Thirty-four years later, I am extremely fortunate to be able to have as the focus of my profession a country whose culture, society and history fascinate me to this day.

Arriving in Osaka in April for the first time, I saw the wonderful pink blossoms that until then I had only seen in photos. Not knowing anyone to show me where to go and being a serious student (to some extent), it was not until the following year that I had a chance to visit places renowned for their sakura, such as Maruyama Park in Kyoto. I was struck by the hundreds of small food and drink stalls, and thousands of people enjoying the park, some dancing and singing, in a state that can only be described as inebriated.

However, cherry blossom viewing is not just an excuse to party; it has deep roots in Japanese history, some of which carry meanings that connect us to, and perhaps may help us deal with, the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The famous weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park, Kyoto

Historical and literary sources abound with references to cherry blossom viewing since ancient times. Sakura viewing features in poems and literary narratives, as well as in noble diaries, where aristocrats enjoy writing poems beneath the blossoms while drinking sake, and recorded their visual experiences whenever the mood and opportunity emerged – the classical version of Facebook or Instagram as the poems became a way of sharing the scene with other aristocrats. In the well-known Kokin wakashū (Collection of Old and New Poems), compiled in the early tenth century, there is a list of poems dedicated to cherry blossoms, extolling their immense beauty, and recognizing that they will soon disappear. As Helen Craig McCullough, writes, in the translation of Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (1985):

 It is just because they scatter without a trace that cherry blossoms delight us so, for in this world lingering means ugliness.

Not only does the poem express a delight in beautiful flowers disappearing, but it condemns things that linger. This awareness and appreciation of impermanence were of immense importance in noble circles, and the ability to connect to the natural world in a compassionate way was a prerequisite in aristocratic cultural capital. Impermanence and its inevitability linked cherry blossoms to Buddhism, central tenets of which were the notion of rebirth, that nothing lasts and that an attachment to this life would prevent eventual salvation.

While such poems undoubtedly express a sadness, there is also a certain acceptance of the inevitable, which served to connect the short life spans of cherry blossoms to those of human beings themselves. Perhaps no statement is more emblematic and famous in that regard than the opening lines of the epic war tale Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike), late 13th century), as translated by Helen Craig McCullough (1988):

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the colour of the śāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous  must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

These opening lines foreshadow the fate of the military Heike family, which had experienced a meteoric rise to power within the imperial court in the second half of the twelfth century, earning them the envy of entrenched nobles and the animosity of other warrior families, which had been defeated. But as the cherry blossoms must eventually fall, so did the Heike, their downfall culminating in the Genpei War of 1180-85.

This year, 2020 AD which will likely go down as one of the most disastrous ones in our lifetime (so far), there is a distinct – dare one say it, universal – need for emotional and cultural reference points. An appreciation and acceptance of impermanence appear, however, to be absent in today’s Japan. Young people enjoy cherry blossoms, but they do not carry the same deep cultural meaning as they did for the men and women who wrote poems about them centuries ago. Mikwi Cho, a PhD student in Japanese History at Trinity, has noted that hanami today is far more an excuse to party, often resulting in serious overconsumption of alcohol. Ideas of impermanence now slip by unnoticed, even when a popular anime series, Doraemon, made metaphoric linkage in a 1998 episode between the falling of sakura petals and the passing of someone.

Mikwi Cho, PhD student at Trinity, is currently conducting research in Japan

The current pandemic is cutting lives short and we will undoubtedly mourn the sudden and premature loss of friends and family. In such circumstances, the poets of pre-modern Japan turned to nature for inspiration and to express their sense of sadness. Cherry blossoms came to symbolise the beauty of both life and nature, and an appreciation that they would return every spring. Whether or not we can share the sense of solace that Japanese poets expressed, the current crisis reminds us of the emotional commonalities we share across centuries and contents.

The entire series of Reflections by Trinity Fellows can be viewed here.

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