When you head down to the Tidal Basin later this month to admire and Instagram the blizzard of bright pink cherry blossoms, you may think that you’re just looking at some pretty flowers. And on one level, you are. But on another level, you’re looking at a *puts on beret and black turtleneck* CENTURIES-OLD METAPHOR FOR THE INEVITABILITY OF DEATH.
No, seriously though. I’m not making this up. In Japan, cherry blossom culture (they call the flowers sakura) goes all the way back to the 8th century, when they were admired mostly by royalty and the aristocracy. By the 18th century, sakura worship had filtered down to the masses (this is how slow things moved before the internet; it literally took a thousand years for trends to filter down to street level), and had become associated with a Buddhist concept called mono no aware. The phrase translates roughly to “a melancholy awareness of the transience of life.” The best contemporary way to explain it would be that it’s like the feeling you get when you look at Facebook photos of yourself from eight years ago and suddenly realize that your prime ended sometime during the first Obama term. While most of us respond to that feeling by immediately getting blackout drunk, Japan is such a weirdly masochistic culture – “death by overwork” is so common there that they invented a word for it – that they went ahead and made cherry blossom festivals a huge annual “celebration.”
But it gets weirder. When the samurai class rose to prominence in the 13th century, they adopted the cherry blossom as their emblem, painting it on their swords and equipment. But to the samurai, the sakura didn’t symbolize melancholy. The fact that the cherry blossom fell at its moment of peak bloom seemed, to them, a perfect metaphor for the samurai’s desire for a glorious death in battle. Instead of being sad about the whole “inevitability of death” thing, they just leaned into it. This was all well and good (if a little creepy) until the start of Japan’s imperial period, when the “glorious death” symbolized by sakura went from being the selfless act of an individual samurai to the sacrificial death of individual soldiers in service to an empire.
When a secret society of military officers plotted in the 1930s to seize power and turn Japan into a totalitarian state, they called themselves the Cherry Blossom Society, and propaganda songs from the period glorified “warriors” ready to “scatter like cherry blossoms.” In World War 2, the sakura was even more popular as a symbol after it became clear that Japan’s defeat was imminent. The last message sent by a Japanese army on a South Pacific island, just before they were wiped out by Allied forces, was “Sakura, Sakura.” One of the first kamikaze divisions (the pilots who deliberately crashed their planes into enemy ships) was named after the “wild cherry blossom,” and kamikaze pilots often painted sakura on their planes before setting off for their last mission.
But hey, it’s 2018; if someone (or an entire country) wants to glorify death through the symbolization of a pink flower, who am I to judge? The real question, though, is how did they get us to join in? Japan gifted the United States our cherry blossom trees in 1912 and again in 1965. Knowing the secret symbology of the sakura, isn’t it at least possible that the gift of the cherry blossoms might have been a passive-aggressive political insult? After all, if the sakura is supposed to be a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life – the tendency of things to blossom and then, at their moment of maximum vitality, to fall – the most obvious commentary is that the United States, then a young, dominant world power, should stay humble, because decline can set in before you know it. But guess what, Japan? Joke’s on you and your metaphorical flower trees, because America ain’t goin’ nowh– oh wait.