By Knott, Matthew
History Today , Vol. 59, No. 4
The cherry blossom tree is one of the most evocative images of Japan. With spring now on the march, Japanese meteorologists report feverishly on the progress of the great blooming of pink, as the whole country seems to relax in the presence of ephemeral beauty. The Japanese have a deep bond with the sakura (cherry blossom), and the hanami (viewing parties) are just one element in a long tradition of appreciation, although the participants and their activities have changed somewhat over the centuries. Today, parties still gather under the spreading blossoms, imbibing sake in celebration of the changing seasons.
The first literary references to sakura appear in the two oldest surviving classical books of Japanese history: Kojiki ('The Records of Ancient Matters') and Nihon Shoki (the 'Chronicles of Japan'), eighth century tomes that blur mythology and factual record. Hanami gained wider prominence through the Heian period (794-1185), the golden age of the Japanese court, following a period of cultural plagiarism from China. This connection produced initial infatuation with the plum blossom (Ume), but soon shifted to Japan's native sakura, not least because the later blooming of this tree was more conducive to outdoor gatherings.
The towering fiction of the Heian era, such as Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genii, provides important early evocations of hanami and highly cultivated spectacles of dining, archery, poetry, dance, recitals on the 13-stringed koto and reflections on the magnificence of sakura. The caddish hero of The Tale of Genii, the son of the emperor and his concubine, greatly moves the empress and other dignitaries with his spring-themed poem: 'Could I see the blossom as other blossoms, then would there be no dew to cloud my heart.'
The aristocratic lifestyle of the Heian period (794 to 1185; Heian means peace and tranquility) comes across as dilettante, but it was not quite as frivolous as it seemed. Participation in the hanami social excursions at the behest of the upper nobility was an honour, but also a competitive occasion to create a favourable impression through charm, wit, intellect, knowledge and sporting prowess. Hanami was thus for some participants imbued with an economic imperative, an unparalleled opportunity for networking and advancement. Particularly successful was Ki No Tsurayuki (872-945), who rose to be compiler of the Kokinshu Imperial Poetry Anthology (c.920) as well as a provincial governor. He wrote that:
If ours were a world Where blossoming cherry trees Were not to be found, What tranquility would bless The human heart in springtime!
Heian culture took hold around the newly founded capital of Kyoto, where the courtyards of the nobility were embellished with plants and galleries for enjoying the changing seasons. A typical waka (Japanese poem) from the Kokinshu pays homage to the splendour: 'Gazing far afield, willow green and cherry pink, weave a delicate brocade of spring so fine, the capital may wear it. …