The Brooklyn Botanical Garden heralds spring with its annual Japanese Sakura Matsuri festival. Star of this celebration: The Cherry Esplanade, immersed in cherry blossom blooms and petals set in back of the BBG’s Japanese Garden. The tree of Sakura, or the cherry blossoms, has an important symbolic metaphor for life and the seasons for the Japanese. Throughout Spring, Summer and fall the Sakura tree grows with little noticeable change above ground. Throughout winter the Sakura weathers the often unforgiving elements. For just three weeks of the year, as the seasons shift from winter to spring the Sakura blossoms. This is where the fruits of the growth during the year are shown. The tree gives its all in putting its energy into a flourish of delicate blossoms; modest but beautiful flowers with a barely detectible fragrance. The Japanese also reckon the Sakura is the most beautiful not when it is in full bloom, but when it starts to wither and fall. The shedding of the Sakura has appeared in so many haiku and poems of Japan. Spring winds may blow all the blooms away in just one night— but the Japanese see in its death the true self-sacrificing spirit of the Samurai. Samurai pledged their life to the service of their Lord. In battle they thought nothing of dying for their cause, and yet did not carelessly give their lives away. They fought with the spirit of the Sakura.
So what did the merchants to? With all their money but all their restrictions? They turned to art. (any partying ← Japanese drinking culture has its origins here) Basically art exploded around this time: woodblock prints (ukiyo-e), the tea ceremony, haiku, Kabuki theater, etc. (note: woodblock, kabuki, and even the tea ceremony were considered “low” art at the time, something for the commoners, but not the samurai class). Here’s where the popularity comes in. You see, a lot of kabuki was actually about war, and a lot of wood block prints were actually advertisements for kabuki which was about war. So, someone, somewhere, was probably like: “hey, you know what would make this more artistic / poetic? let’s add some cherry blossoms” (I don’t know, I’m just guessing) And the popularity of the cherry blossom as a symbol of fleeting life exploded as it was literally plastered on the walls and shown an the theaters in Tokyo, Osaka and Kiyoto. The samurai / aristocratic culture sort of took this up as well – since they didn’t have much else to do – and the popularity of cherry blossoms also grew in the poems and paintings coming out of the cultural elite who (I imagine) were rather enjoying the fact that their ancestors exploits were now the focus of popular culture. The result was sort of a perfect zeitgeist where both “common” / “pop” art and “cultured” art both had the cherry blossom with a similar theme and thus it was cemented in the minds of the Japanese as THE symbol for the beauty of a fleeting life. Do most Japanese people know this history? Probably not, but do they know that the cherry blossom is about the beauty of fleeting life? Absolutely, and now YOU know whey they know.