What accounts for the Japanese passion for cherry blossoms? It's the flowers' brief and uncertain lives. That answer comes with the authority of Columbia professor Donald Keene, grand old man of American commentators on Japanese culture. The Japanese find cherry blossoms so heartbreakingly beautiful because of their evanescence. The blooms last only a few days, less time than those of most trees.(2) Perishability is one of four features identified by Keene as central to the Japanese idea of beauty in his essay, Japanese Aesthetics.(3) The Japanese savor evanescent beauty for its reminder of the pathos of transient human life. Keene supports his argument with the words of the fourteenth century writer Kenkō, whose Essays in Idleness are a Japanese cultural touchstone: "If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty." This view of the world through the eyes of the doomed imbues every falling petal with a sense of tragedy. An aesthetic preference for perishability seems peculiarly Japanese. An appreciation for the short-lived does not necessarily come easily to those of other cultures. Keene recounts the story of a Japanese novelist visiting Europe who was stunned when his invitations to European friends to go snow-viewing were met with laughter.
If we go to Washington D.C. or to Newark's Branch Brook Park to see the cherry blossoms, we take care, of course, to time our trip so as to see them at their peak. Fourteenth century Kenkō might have regarded such an approach as insensitive: "Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom?...Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration....In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting. Does the love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each other's arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone...such a man truly knows what love means."(4)
Cherry blossoms were painted on the airplanes of kamikaze bomber pilots, the most startling link between those flowers and the tragic brevity of human life. Some believed that the souls of the pilots would be reincarnated as cherry blossoms. A thousand cherry trees are planted at Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo war memorial.
The next time you find yourself elated by suburban New Jersey's display of cherry blossoms, you might enhance your enjoyment by reflecting with Kenkō that "the hour of death comes sooner than you expect." On the other hand, you might instead prefer to take comfort in the sturdy blooms of Cornus officinalis, reassuringly long-lived.(5)
(1) Essays in Idleness, The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, trans. Donald Keene, Columbia University Press 1967, p. 120.
(2) By contrast, the Japanese Cornus officinalis that began blooming in Cedar Brook Park on March 6 are still at it. See Plainfield Trees March 23 posting on Cornelian cherry dogwoods. To be fair, the bloom period of Cornus officinalis is unusually long. Typically the flowers last five or six weeks in Plainfield.
(3) Donald Keene, Japanese Aesthetics, in The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, Columbia University Press 1988, pp. 3-22. The essay began life as a lecture for a nonspecialist audience and is quite readable.
(4) Essays in Idleness, cited above, pp. 115-118.
(5) See note 2.
Copyright Gregory Palermo