The Japanese love of flowers

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. 


At the Kaetsu Centre in Camrbidge, I watched these ladies put together an ikebana display in a matter of minutes.


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.


At a chrysanthemum festival in Echizen, they clothe models in kimonos made from chrysanthemum.

Lotus flowers

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.



“In joy or sadness flowers are our constant friends.” Kakuzō OkakuraThe Book Of Tea

Cultural Crossings: Japanese finding their hula self

It was back in April when I accidentally walked into a Hawaiian hula dance class at Echizen Cultural Centre. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d have found an ikebana class, or a calligraphy class but instead, I came across about twenty women in long colourful skirts with flowers in their hair, dancing to Hawaiian music. How strange, I thought, to find hula dancing in my small Japanese town! 

From then on I’ve realised how much Japanese people love Hawaii, and its exotic Polynesian heritage and American culture. Speak to any Japanese person about Hawaii and they’ll probably tell you about their visit to the ‘tropical paradise’, or how much they want to go. It is of course the closest place to actual America, and Japanese people, at least my students, love America. I wanted to find out where this fascination began, and why there is a hula class in Echizen. 

The first outreach of friendship

In the January of 1806, a Japanese cargo ship named Inawaka-maru left a port near Tokyo to head back to her homeport near Hiroshima. During the journey she was battered by a horrific storm. The eight-man crew had to cut down the mast due to the strong winds, and their fate was at the mercy of the elements. As their ship drifted across the Pacific Ocean, their water and rice stores ran dry, but the men survived by fishing and collecting rain water. It was an American captain near Hawaii that found the men in a state of near starvation and nursed them back to health. The captain left the eight men in Oahu under the care of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha, who openly welcomed these foreigners to his country. Due to illness on their return journey, only one of the men made it back to Japan to document their tales of the Hawaiian kindness, but this account began an amicable relationship between the two countries.

The first wave of migration

Scared of the affects of most foreign contact, between 1869 and 1885, Japan banned emigration to Hawaii, in fear that Japanese labourers would degrade the reputation of the Japanese race. Yet the Hawaiian-Japanese relations were softened when the king of Hawaii visited Japan in 1881 and met with Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito. The similarities between the countries were apparent: both were island nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies and both were under pressure of Western powers. To join the countries even more, King Kalakaua even proposed a marriage between his daughter and a Japanese prince. This alliance never happened, but the ban on emigration to Hawaii was lifted, and in 1885 the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii to work on sugar-cane and pineapple plantations. Most of them never left, and became the Issei – first generation – of the Japanese diaspora in Hawaii.

Settling and choosing ‘picture brides’

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

The Japanese community in Hawaii grew and grew. Like other immigrants they revolted against the hard working labour conditions of the plantations and set up their own businesses. The number of Japanese migrants arriving in Hawaii made it possible to maintain strong cultural ties with Japan. They brought their religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism with them, as well as many other customs, festivals and foods.

It appears that the Japanese community kept themselves quite separate from the native Hawaiians, well at least in who they would marry. A ‘bride trade’ emerged, where Japanese men in Hawaii would choose a Japanese bride from looking at a set of postcards with Japanese women on them. And so the chosen women crossed the ocean to meet a man they had never met to start a family in Hawaii, probably the first mail-order type bride.

Picture brides brought from Japan

Picture brides brought from Japan

WWII – what to do with Japanese Americans?

Obviously WWII, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, was a slight hiccup in this harmonious relationship. At the time 157,000 Japanese were living in Hawaii – that’s about a third of the population, but only about 2000 Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. These camps were to control people who were a threat to American security, and in other parts of America, such as California, many more Japanese were put in these camps. This disparity between American policies was to sustain the economy of Hawaii, as if a third of its population were to be put in an internment camp, its economy would implode on itself. Yet it must have been an extremely hard time to be a Japanese American in Hawaii when the two countries were at war.

Hawaii today

Now Japanese Americans make up about a fifth of the whole population in Hawaii. Japanese is a major language spoken and due to the large number of Japanese tourists whom visit, Japanese is often added to signs. For a long time, the identities of the Nisei and Sansei, second and third generation Japanese born in Hawaii, find their identities crossing both countries.

Hawaiian culture in Japan

My friend's hat - bought in Japan - Hawaiian inspired fashion.

My friend’s hat – bought in Japan – Hawaiian inspired fashion.

Over the last 10 years the popularity of Hawaiian culture has rocketed. Not just Aloha shirts, but learning Hawaiian language, or taking up the ukulele. A craze is sweeping the nation – that of hula dancing. It is estimated about 400,000 Japanese are involved with learning Hawaiian dance, most of whom are middle-aged women who enjoy the light exercise and the excitement of learning a new dance form These Japanese are drawn to the rhythm and sway of the dance, something exotically freeing from traditional Japanese dances. Many of these followers make a trip to Hawaii to take hula lessons or attend competitions. To cater for the needs of these hula dances, Hawaiian jewellery and Hawaiian-style dress shops are springing up. People are interested in the music, the culture and learning the moves of the dance. A student of the dance, Chieko Kobayashi, 50, says that the dance captures her emotionally. “Dancing makes me feel I can be just my soul, nothing else,” Kobayashi said.


A Japanese hula group competing in a dancing competition in Hawaii

This fascination in Hawaiian culture no doubt comes from the thousands of Japanese people who choose to visit Hawaii on their vacation. For those who can afford it, instead of going to their own tropical islands in Okinawa, they go to Hawaii. Hawaii continues to be the most popular honeymoon location for Japanese people, with 40% of newly wed couples choosing to spend their vacation there. Why? Because it’s ‘a home away from home’. There is the excitement of travelling abroad, but they also know they can speak Japanese, eat at Japanese restaurants and stay in Japanese hotels. On top of this, they are in ‘America’ and can watch baseball matches, eat the biggest hamburgers and splurge in American shops, where the shop attendant probably speaks Japanese.

So from my research, I can now understand why there are a group of middle-aged women in my town who are learning to sway together to the gentle sounds of Hawaiian music. I wonder what other surprising cultural crossings there still are in Japan…


Hiroko Hara dancing in the annual Hula Ho’olauna Aloha festival

“If you act, you change” – Women of Fukushima

Sometimes life as a JET is too easy. It is easy to become absorbed in your own world, unconnected to current affairs, neither grounded in the community outside your door, or the one you’ve left at home. But it’s good to be reminded that there is something more important out there than your weekend plans.

Today I watched two films that stirred something inside of me. A friend told me of her visit to the Tohuku region (the area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) and how she felt deeply moved when she visited there. Whilst she was there she met some foreign film makers who were documenting how people dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. I recommend you watch both of them, but here are my thoughts.

Then and Now: Ishinomaki


This 14-minute film shows the fighting spirit of the Japanese people. The determination of people who won’t just move away from their destroyed homes and start over again, but are battling to rebuild their community.

It is filmed eight months on from the tsunami, but it looks like the destruction happened yesterday. About half the city was engulfed by the tsunami and it was here where nearly all the students at an elementary school died, as well as a 24-year-old American JET named Taylor Anderson. Instead of focusing on the sadness of the place, this film shows the hope and courage of the survivors.

An elderly couple stand in a gutted building and enthusiastically explain their plans to reopen their liquor store. Having spent three months in temporary shelter and got ill from that, they ask “What else can we do?”, we have to try. A white-shirted bar-man tells of how a group of locals decided to make the Ishinomaki 2.0 bar. “There was no place to go in the evenings to have fun, we needed somewhere to talk together”. So with a bit of hard labour and DIY, there is now a place to relax and have fun.

Toshihiko Fujita, a volunteer at the community centre, explains that the tsunami “destroyed everyone’s lives”. He speaks boldly, “we can reconstruct building and house, but when it comes to people’s spirit, it’s very difficult”. People living in temporary buildings don’t have neighbours, they don’t go out, so they need to share in their suffering. That’s why at the community hall they is a soup kitchen, a counselling service, and volunteers run a kindergarten and clean houses. Why was this so necessary? Because of the number of people who were committing suicide. The film states that in Ishinomaki, ten people commit suicide a month (data from January 2012). With one in two people without a job, and their town looking like a wasteland, suicide becomes the only way out for some.

What comes through from this film is the strength of the survivors who have stepped up to rebuild not just their town, but to kindle the spirit of their community.

LKG_Japanese-Art_Blog_Ishi-no-maki“I’m just an ordinary person, so all I try to do is wake up each morning with courage and hope.” Toshihiko Fujita

Women of Fukushima Fukushima no onnatachi 


In the previous film, the men hint at how “the Japanese government are preoccupied” and one states “we survivors are just the baggage”. Yet in this film a group of six women have become political, openly speaking out at the lack of help given by the Japanese government. These women explain they are “gosei yakeru” (beyond anger) at how they have been forgotten. This anger has been channelled into protests and action to bring about change in Fukushima.

Near the start, one woman comments on the one-sided media portrayal of the Fukuishima disaster, saying “the Japanese government only shows beautiful things”. The footage of people waiting in line at a combini, was not what she saw. Even on the first day of the disaster the combinis were all looted.

In between interviews with the passionate women are scenes of their town, the barrier across the road that reads “Keep Out”, white people in radiation coats revisiting their homes, and strangely enough, an ostrich pecking at the empty ground.


What are these women fighting for? For no more nuclear power stations in Japan. One woman shakes her finger at the camera, “The most important things are life, health and raising healthy children. We don’t need nuclear power stations for this.” These are mothers who have extended their care to their community. They wonder if the young people care, if people in Tokyo care, if women in the next prefecture care? They want to unite the women in Japan for their cause.

Pictures of the demonstrations with people shouting “Stop the restarts” are the most angered pictures of Japanese people I’ve ever seen. Some women went dressed with a one towel’s stuffed under their dresses to make it look like they were pregnant women and shouted ‘Protect the children!’.” These women are serious and empowered. But who is listening? The mainstream media didn’t report a ten-day hunger strike in Fukushima city and these stories of protests don’t  often make the TV bulletins

This film uncovers the struggle of the survivors of the 11/3 disaster and their fight to stop nuclear power plants opening again. These women have taken the battle into their own hands and are not afraid to speak out against the government, even though they know they are being watched. I hope their protests are listened to.

It’s not just mud

A NGO is helping rebuild the city of Ishinomaki by organising volunteer work to build playgrounds, run a café and rebuild houses. Anyone can donate, and anyone can volunteer. Fellow Fukui JET Anna Ho spent two weeks volunteering with INJM. Read about it here. Perhaps I’ll sign up as a volunteer this winter. Who’s with me?