Falling for you

How cherry blossoms represent the extreme beauty in violent death


They appear in parks, the crest of the Japanese self defence force and on Japanese money. Cherry blossoms are the Japanese symbol par excellence.

Each spring, the entire nation tunes in for the Cherry Blossom Forecast. Provided by the Japanese Weather Association, predictions are made as early as February to inform the public of when the sakura will bloom in which parts of the country, when prime Hanami (flower viewing) will occur, how this compares to last year and when the season ends. That it is an imprecise art is irrelevant; forecasts are followed with the level of attention that the British devote to Wimbledon.

When the sakura arrive, waiting turns to frenzy. People queue (and pay others to queue) to reserve a space under the trees for optimal flower viewing. The frenzy is understandable, as sakura have the lifespan of a butterfly. In what is known as “Flower Blizzard”, petals are shed within a week of full bloom.

Hanami season is much anticipated for obvious reasons: the arrival of spring, the al fresco picnics, the daytime drinking. Yet unbeknownst to many - foreigners and the younger Japanese generation alike - darker symbolism dwells beneath the sweetness of the affair. In Japanese history and military culture, cherry blossoms were employed as an explicit symbol of imperialism. The way that they flowered and fell at the height of their beauty was taken to represent death for a greater cause; an aesthetic and exemplary way to exit.

Samurai warriors drew heavily upon the analogy of the sakura: cherry blossoms fall at their peak beauty, and so they would apply powder and lipstick to keep their faces beautiful while suffering death. They often sported the five petalled flower on their clothes and sword hilts.  According to the samurai honour code the “aesthetic and exemplary way to exit” was by seppuku, or self-disembowelment. With a short blade, warriors would cut laterally from their left abdomen to right, turn the blade upwards, then cross over the first incision with a downward stroke starting at the sternum. This was usually the exquisitely painful manner in which a warrior would follow his lord into death, expressing unconditional fealty.

In World War II, the sakura was instated as an official symbol of Japanese imperialism.

As a last ditched attempt to salvage the Japanese spirit during the final throes of warfare, the military launched its divine wind. Kamikaze pilots were charged with guiding their explosive laden planes into Allied naval vessels, in a final mission for their country. Furnished with sakura sprigs for their uniform and with noble purpose, nearly 4000 pilots died like “beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor”. The empire of Japan and its emperor considered this a just sacrifice.

Yukio Mishima was intrigued by this apparent paradox of the Japanese psyche:

You can easily find two contradictory characteristics of Japanese culture,” he observed. “One is elegance, one is brutality. But these two characteristics are very tightly combined sometimes.”

According to Mishima, outbursts of savagery were caused by the straight jacketed nature of Japanese society. Japanese people sometimes become tired of elegance, he explained, and needed “a sudden explosion to make [them] free”.

He very much embodied the paradox, being a thrice nominated Nobel Peace Prize author who also fervently wished for Japanese remilitarisation. On the 25th November 1970, Mishima made a public plea for the overthrow of the post war constitution forbidding rearmament. When he was met with derision, he ended his life slowly, painfully and perhaps poetically by seppuku.

Falling for one’s emperor, one’s nation and one’s ideals.

Death aestheticised and brutality sanitised.

No other nation has extracted so much pain tinged with pleasure from the contemplation of a flower.

Further study material: watch The Handmaiden.

- Ophelia Cai