It’s no coincidence that one of the very first Japanese words I picked up by watching anime was: Sakura. Cherry trees are so ubiquitous and important to Japanese culture and identity that they even name girls after them! The breathtaking sight of cherry trees in full bloom, raining down soft petals on passersby is so enchanting to behold, it’s no wonder it’s such a common sight in anime. In fact, cherry blossoms have a huge cultural and historical significance in Japan, to the point that blossom viewing parties are a common celebration.
On a practical basis, the blooming of cherry trees was used to mark and even divine the harvest season. Since cherry trees bloom between March and early May, they are some of the first plants to flower and as such mark the beginning of spring and herald the harvest. Moreover, since they are so common throughout Japan and as their blooms are so visible, they are a striking and unmissable sight. The earlier their bloom starts, the sooner people need to get ready for the harvest, and the more generous the flowers, the more likely the fruit and vegetable yield will be plentiful.
Historically, this was indeed a great cause for celebration when concerns for feeding yourself and your family were at the forefront of people’s minds. And as the spectacle remains beautiful, the cultural significance is still very present in modern-day Japan.
Like most flowers, they are associated with life, renewal and beauty but also death, or impermanence. As the flowers die, spreading their delicate petals, they remind us the everything ends. This philosophy is ingrained in a lot of Eastern spiritualism and celebrated. In World War II, for instance, kamikaze pilots would often paint the blossoms on the sides of their planes. The significance being that they too would die beautifully for their land.
A fun little random fact, the kanji for sakura is written with 木 (ki) which means tree and saku 咲 which can mean either bloom or smile. Doesn’t that just fit perfectly!
I live in Canada. You know this because I use every excuse to tell you about it. Canadians are that way. I’m telling you now because I always felt this camaraderie with Japan’s cherry trees. One of our most recognizable symbols is the maple leaf. We use it all over the place. We are also a tree country. But it’s not just the maple leaf, it’s the red maple leaf. As in the maple leaf in fall, when countless trees across the land become ablaze with autumn colours.
Sadly, global warming has damaged out seasons up here and we no longer have such beautiful fall season as we use to, but we still get a colourful month out of the year. The significance of the maple tree in Canada mirrors that of sakura season in Japan. They are also a symbol of life but an even more pronounced symbol of death. They mark the end of harvest rather than the beginning.
In Canada, winters are long and quite harsh. You have to make sure you’re prepared in order to survive them. We also have a more significant fall harvest than most places as late-blooming plants fair much better in a country that regularly still has snowfalls in May. The changing of the leaves in a sign that you need to make sure your stores are full if you want to survive the months ahead. They are also a cause for celebration. There is something called Indian summer here. Basically, it’s the two months out of the year where you can actually go outside without suffering and it happens between September and November. (I love my Montreal, but no one lives here cause of the weather).
Just like the cherry blossoms in Japan, the red maple leaves in Canada are the most visible sign of that season. So, we celebrate them and cheer them on. They make us happy, one beautiful big bash tinged with the inevitability of death and loss before the hard-long winter comes. I have always drawn parallels between our maples and Japan’s cherry trees. Seeing them is both attractively unusual and comfortably familiar to me. I do love those scenes in anime.
So, this is how, through pretty coloured things falling trees, anime once again reminded me that we are more alike than different. The world is surprisingly small and very beautiful. And even two cultures as physically and historically separated as Canada and Japan can be surprisingly similar in some ways.
I didn’t know how to fit this in my post but there is one thing I’ve been wondering about. With all the cherry trees in anime, why don’t we see people eating cherries more often? We only get eatable cherries about1 week out of the year up here and everyone walks around with bags of them. I find it odd that it’s not a commonly animated snack….
This same artist also made a beautiful Natsume in the autumn piece and I want to share it with you:
34 thoughts on “Sakura Blossoms and Maple Leaves”
I once went to DC and saw all the fields of cherry blossom trees gifted to America by japan and it was breathtaking! I wish we had them all around like that! 😝
I bet it was beautiful
Japan actually has a red-leaf season too, although it’s not as well-known – the season is called kouyou and the leaves themselves are known as either the same thing or momiji, which share the same kanji (紅葉)…and that means Kouyou from Bungou Stray Dogs and Momiji from Fruits Basket share a first name in that way (I didn’t realise that until I googled them individually). In the same way you have hanami, you have tsukimi (moon viewing, for the harvest moon) and momijigari (literally “red-leaf hunting”) for the autumn.
Oh yes. The turning of the leaves in Japan is beautiful. Seeing autumn colours in anime is gorgeous as well and oddly a theme in a lot of shows I love
I’ve never actually seen a Japanese cherry blossum tree, or even the American sweet-cherry tree that has the pale pink flowers. All we have around here, both ornamental and a few wild, are black cherry trees, which are incredibly pretty, but only have off-white flowers. I think if I saw a real cherry tree in full bloom with pink flowers, I’d just stand there for a while, drooling over it.
I’m the opposite. I’ve seen quite a lot of cherry threes but I don’t recall seeing a black one. It sounds very lovely
Well they are quite pretty, especially once they’re older.
This is one of the reasons I like to travel. I like seeing seasons. Country QLD we have brown, dry and cold with possible frost or brown, dry and stinking hot and every few years we get a flood followed by mouse or grasshopper plague just to keep things interesting. I loved being in Japan during Autumn and Winter on my previous trips and actually seeing the seasons change and of course this year I got to see the final days of the Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo so that was fantastic.
I like that grasshopper plague is a season
Oh yes and one that I’ll happily pass on. The last one was deeply unpleasant given you couldn’t take two steps out your front door without one of them landing on you. Of course without having had any decent rain in years we also haven’t had grasshoppers (or pretty much anything else).
They are edible.Collect them and roast them. 🙂
Those trees, both kinds, are so pretty. Hanami sounds like such a fun event – then you go there, don’t find a good spot, and everyone around you is drunk, so you talk to the ants insteads. (I’m not speaking from experience; I’m just a natural grump who has to ruin everything.)
Seriously, though, I’d totally be up for the experience.
In my area, the prettiest leaves are wild wine, not a tree. They grow a very pretty dark red, and it’s especially pretty when the evening sun comes in on a low angle. Sadly, they’ve been withering the last few years. I suppose it’s the unpredictable climate. They don’t know what to do.
Also, while I’m at it, I looked up the Japanese word for cherry. It’s “outou”, and it’s written with the kanji for cherry and peach..
Or: “Seiyomisakura” (with kanji that explicitly state its foreigness)
I hope the links work. They’re very interesting to click through (with all the kanji involved).
The more common word for cherry is actually “sakuranbo,” often not even written with kanji characters (though it can use the ones you mentioned, plus a couple other forms). And then sure, “seiyou” in “seiyoumizakura” means “western,” but it doesn’t so much state the foreignness of the cherries as it does name a specific species/variety/cultivar (like “western sweet cherry”). “outou” then often refers to the Asia-indigenous “Nanking cherry.” Few people in Japan eat those though, so “outou” becomes a very rare word. There’s another caveat here too… I have only ever seen kanji for “outou” written on cans of peaches — not cherries — because with a different first kanji it becomes “yellow peach!” But then, like another commenter said, cherry blossom trees do not produce edible fruit anyway so I don’t know if it matters…
It’s interesting nonetheless
Thanks, that’s really interesting to hear. A dictionary site only takes you so far.
Now I want a cherry peach tart
Ive seen how pretty wild wines are. It’s aweful that they’ve been withering. I hope they’ll figure something out
“It is just because they scatter without a trace That cherry blossoms delight us so, For in this world Lingering means ugliness.”
— Anonymous, Kokin Wakashu (10th C)
From the anime Chihayafuru:
“Even in the age of ancient gods, I have never heard that the Tatsuta River dyed its water in autumn red.” —Ariwara no Narihira, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (13th C)
Such a cool post idea 😄.
I think the one thing I can compare to living in Japan in my area is Mount Rainier being our Mount Fuji. It’s like an unofficial sort of mascot for our area because it can be seen everywhere and it’s just so beautiful and full of wonder.
That is until the Lahar happens where mud slides come from the mountain and a lot of people die.
Mount Rainier is beautiful! I guess beautiful things are a little dangerous…
Which would be quite a Japan-like disaster… (Mt. Asama, 1783)
Nice lesson on cherry blossoms in Japan and the significance of the maple trees in Canada. I definitely learned things there.
Yup. There were a few things I knew like when cherry blossoms bloom and how you always see them in anime when it’s the start of the school year.
Not to mention that the impermanence thing works well with Japanese graduation, which happens during the season.
It’s a bummer, but most cherry blossom trees don’t actually produce cherries. There are actually a lot of cherry blossoms in BC (one in my backyard!), and we even have flower festivals like they do in Japan (just not as fancy).
That is a bummer. Where did the cherries go?
The “sakura” varieties of cherry, Yoshino being the most common in Japan, naturally do not produce fruit. Don’t quote me on this, but I don’t believe there are any native fruiting-type cherries in Japan.
That would explain the lack of cherries in local cuisine.
I believe cherry blossom trees and cherry trees have been bred to be different species, the former only for viewing purposes.
Here in SoCal we have lots of fruitless cherry trees.
We have large orange groves and when they bloom in spring the scent is lovely as you drive by them. Right now its the scent of the black sage in the mountains that really carries.