The Cherry Blossom, or flower of the Sakura tree (桜 or 櫻; さくら) is symbolic to many people. To most it is simply the flourish of Spring, however in Japan, it’s meaning is a more ephemeral one.
The custom of “Hanami,” or picnicking under a blooming Sakura tree, is said to have began in Japan during the Nara period (710-794) however chronicles from this time record the festivals being held as early as the third century CE. By the Edo period (1603-1868) the practice was no longer limited only to the Imperial Court. The Tokugawa Shogunate of samurai society planted many cherry blossom trees and encouraged commoners to enjoy the centuries old practice of lunching and sake beneath the romantic blossoms.
It was during this Edo period that the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Portuguese ships began to arrive and established the “Nanban” (meaning “barbarian”) trade followed closely by the Dutch and then the English. Early accounts of these foreign “barbarians” describes them as “crude, [with] a lack of hygiene, and [unable] to understand their writing. A contemporary Japanese account relates:
- “They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters” (from Boxer, “Christian century”).
Japanese culture during the Edo period flourished. It was a time of great artistry, creativity, cultural, intellectual, and economic growth. Out of Buddhism, arose Neo-Confucianism, a system of thought focused on a secular view of man and society. The application of Neo-Confucianism led to a change in political structure from the previous feudal norm to one that emphasized large group oriented practices. The idea of the Confucian Man was replaced by the Rule of Law, wherein each person had a specific place in society and was expected to fulfill the mission of that place. The Rulers reigned with benevolence. The government was all-powerful but humane and responsible. Humanism and Rationalism were totted as ideal.
The burgeoning metropolis of Edo with it’s growing international industry and sophisticated government, supported a well-educated elite. Urban populations all at once had both the means and the leisure time to support mass culture. This search for Earthly enjoyment became known as Ukiyo or “the floating world,” a notion that arose out of Buddhist teachings, again, emphasizing the transient or ungraspable nature of beauty and life in this world. Fashion, entertainment, and the importance of aesthetic beauty in all objects and actions of everyday life were essential. Elegance and refinement became the norm. Geisha, music, Kabuki, poetry, literature, and art all thrived.
This gossamer nature of of the Tokugawa era in Edo Japan is best articulated by the woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e. Mass-produced, these prints were made for those who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. Like the Sakura tree, they were art brought to the people. Best known of these Ukiyo-e artists are Harunobu, Moronobu, Utamaro, Yoshitoshi, Hiroshige, and Hokusai. The odd angles and shapes through which Hiroshige often viewed landscape and the work of Kiyonaga and Utamaro, with its emphasis on flat planes and strong linear outlines, later had a profound impact on such Western artists as Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh. Yoshitoshi’s “100 Views of the Moon,” and Hiroghige’s or Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” articulate fully the poetic and impermanent nature of the beauty in this world. Novelist Asai Ryōi, in his Ukiyo monogatari (浮世物語 “Tales of the Floating World”, c. 1661), provides some insight into the concept of the floating world:
… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…
Coby Dahlstrom (aka #mrsdrdahl)