For every month in Japan, a new flower has been celebrated. From cherry blossom to azaleas, to my personal favourite, wisteria. Flower-viewing festivals still take pride of place in the Japanese calendar, but it’s not only at festivals or fancy gardens that you can see them. Japan’s fluctuating climate and hot and humid summers are perfect for growing all types of flowers, and they bloom in their droves, covering parks, hill sides and road sides with swathes of colour. Quite simply, I’ve fallen in love with flowers in Japan.
Flowers feature prominently in Japanese culture; you can see them in art, on kimonos, on stamps and even on Japanese passports. Flowers even feature heavily in Japanese tattooing, with cherry blossom and lotus flowers being popular with yakuza types getting them inked on their skin. Perhaps, not only for their aesthetic value but for the symbolism behind them. Shinto influences on Japanese culture may have something to do with flower-appreciation. The Shinto idea that gods exist in every living thing has become interwoven in the culture, creating a respect for even the smallest flower grown. Traditionally Japanese people bring small sprigs of flowers into their houses, to put in their tokonoma alcove, bringing the outside into the inside – and often complimenting the hanging within the alcove. In ‘The Book of Tea’ (1906), Okakura Kakuzo describes how he brought the art of tea ceremonies to the West. One poignant reflection on the West was the number of cut flowers that decorated the rooms of upper class homes in the late nineteenth century. He saw huge bouquets of roses, as a wasteful graveyard of flowers, cut and left to die. Instead Japanese people prefer the elegant simplicity of an unsymmetrical arrangement, even if there are only a few sprigs on display.
The word ikebana comes from the verb ikeru (living) and hana (flower), making ‘living flower’ or kado ‘the way of the flower’. It is a minimal approach to flower arranging, and developed from the spirit of making offerings of flowers at Shinto and Buddhist rites. Ikebana practitioners spend years learning the art, as well as learning the meaning behind each flower and their possible combinations. Hanakotoba means ‘hana’ 花 (flower), ‘kotoba’ 言葉 (meaning), which, translates as the ‘language of flowers’ in Japanese. Using hanakotoba, a practitioner can convey the emotions they are feeling in a colourful and beautiful way.
Here are some flowers which have deep symbolism in Japanese culture.
Sakura 桜 – cherry blossom
The phrase ‘mono no aware’ is sadness the Japanese feel as sakura petals fall the ground. It represents the transience nature of sakura, the feeling of time is passing and is what makes cherry blossom so special. Sakura and samurai go hand in hand. Samurai warriors took note of how fleeting the life of sakura was, and how it’s beauty was intensified due to its short life. Samurai didn’t make plans for the future, but they believed that they should live their life brilliantly, however brief it may be, just like sakura which looks magnificent in bloom, but falls to the ground after a few days. This idea flourished again for kamikaze pilots, who were willing to die for their country’s cause and believed their sacrifice would be eternally remembered.
Now sakura, has become a symbol of nationalism in Japan and of friendship, such as when Japan gave thousands of cheery tress to the United States in 1912. Found in a bouquet or in an ikebana it indicates being gentle or kind, but generally it represents the end of winter and the harbinger of spring.
Tsubaki 椿 Red Camellia
Samurai used to detest these flowers. Why? Because when they die the entire flower falls at once, its head separated from its stem, symbolising beheading. They are considered bad luck for warriors. But amongst regular people, tsubaki aren’t considered bad luck at all. In fact, red tsubaki represent love.
Yellow and orange chrysanthemums have been a symbol of Japan’s Imperial Family since the 14th century. The imperial seal was made up of 14 or 16 petal chrysanthemums, which was displayed at shrines in Japan, as before WWII the Emperor was considered a god. Today the chrysanthemum crest appears on the front of all Japanese passports. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ (1964), using two strong symbols of Japanese culture to try to understand the mindset in Japan just after WWII as each represents a strong meaning. A white chrysanthemum, called ‘shiragiku’, means truth or grief. It is the most common flower for funerals, and its western meaning is also death and grief.
Lotus flowers are especially revered in Japan for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a symbol of Buddhism, it rises from the murky, muddy waters of a pond to bloom into a pure beautiful flower. This symbolizes attaining enlightenment. In July, Kanrensetsu ‘lotus flower-viewing’ is very popular. When I went to the Lotus Park in Minami-Echizen there were over eight different kinds of lotus flowers. What was astonishing was the height of them. The stalks are so strong they push the flower up to being over a metre tall, towering over the large leaves. I saw them in the evening, when there was a special light-up festival, but I would love to make an early viewing session there to watch as the lotus’ open up at dawn, when you can hear their petals literally crack open.
Like so many things, that experience is in my list of things to do for the next year.