For Japanese, Blossoms Are Laden With Symbolism

Library of Congress Lecture Unveils the Mystery and Meaning Behind the Flowering Trees

Posted March 31, 2009 at 5:24pm

So you think you know cherry blossoms?

According to anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Japan’s cherished flower is fraught with symbolism that is both inspiring and a tad scary.

“Did you know that cherry blossoms are associated with madness?— said Ohnuki-Tierney, chairwoman of modern culture at the Library of Congress’ John W. Kluge Center.

Ohnuki-Tierney will offer that tidbit and other surprising facts about cherry blossoms in a lecture on Thursday at the Library. “Blooming Cherry Blossoms, Falling Cherry Blossoms: Symbolism of the Flower in Japanese Culture and History— will give Washingtonians good talking points to impress the endless visitors to the District who come to ogle our trees during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Take the connection between cherry blossoms and lunacy. That link became clear to Ohnuki-Tierney when she gave a lecture on cherry blossoms at the Japanese Academy of Science in 1995. In the audience was Prince Mikasa Takahito, the oldest living member of the Japanese imperial family. The Japanese royalty invited her for a chat after the lecture. Later, Takahito, 93 and the paternal uncle of Emperor Akihito, started sending Ohnuki-Tierney materials on cherry blossoms.

Finally, Takahito took her to the narrative theater in Tokyo in March 1996.

“I cannot be more grateful to Prince Mikasa since the relationship between cherry blossoms with madness came to me like a flash and led me to an understanding of a complex symbolism of cherry blossoms,— Ohnuki-Tierney said.

After that encounter, Ohnuki-Tierney, who specializes in analyzing symbols of Japanese identity, wrote a book called “Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History.— The research and writing took her 10 years because of the wealth of data, she said.

One interesting use of symbolism concerns falling cherry blossom petals. The falling petals are a metaphor for the soldiers of the Meiji era, which began in 1868. “The [Japanese] military told the soldiers to fall … like the beautiful cherry petals which bloom but only after a short time they fall down,— Ohnuki-Tierney said.

Ohnuki-Tierney explained that dying was a way for the Japanese soldiers to preserve the soul. “It’s a strange cultural value placed upon the purity of the soul,— she said.

Today, of course, Japan uses cherry trees to spread goodwill around the world. This practice started when President William Howard Taft and his wife visited Tokyo in 1907. “Mrs. Taft fell in love and asked the government to bring the cherry trees,— Ohnuki-Tierney said.

On Feb. 9, 1912, 6,000 seedlings were shipped from Yokohama harbor to the District. Three thousand were planted along the Potomac River. Upon the request of Japanese residents in New York, the remaining seedlings were sent to that city to mark the 300th anniversary celebration of the discovery of the Hudson River by Dutch explorer Henry Hudson.

The practice of offering cherry trees continued after World War II. The Japanese Association for Flowers donated 1,500 seedlings to Bulgaria for the 1,300th anniversary of the country. About 5,000 seedlings were delivered to Versailles in France, to Hamburg and to Iran.

In 1975, when Japan’s imperial couple visited the District, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp depicting an American flag with cherry blossoms clustered beneath.

Ohnuki-Tierney’s lecture is in Room 119 of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building on Thursday at 4 p.m. Sponsored by the Kluge Center, the event is free. No tickets or reservations are needed.