More than meets the eye: 'Dead bodies are buried under cherry blossoms'
Ah, the beauty of the flowers. The parties with friends under picturesque trees. The wonderful feeling that comes with knowing spring has arrived. There’s nothing quite like cherry blossom season in Japan.
But there is a dark side to everything. A side where things aren’t always so rosy – or, in this case, cherry. We all know about the warm and sunny side of cherry blossoms in Japan. But what about that other side?
Given the long-term local love affair with these delicate flowers, you may wonder how there could possibly be any negative association with them at all. Well, for starters, that hasn’t always been the case.
The “Manyoshu” was written in the seventh to the eighth century and is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. It only has 40 poems on cherry blossoms, compared to 118 in praise of the then more popular plum blossom. It’s believed that cherry blossoms didn’t catch on until about the 10th century. Before then, as well as after, Japanese haven’t always been so happy to see them.
In fact, before the Edo Period (1603-1867), many people here considered cherry blossoms to be a symbol of bad luck. Because they are very fragile and last for only 10 days or so, people used to think cherry blossoms were a bad omen for relationships – especially marriage.
“Sakurazame” is an old Japanese term that literally means the fading away of a cherry blossom. People once used it to describe a couple that breaks up soon after getting together, like cherry blossoms that fall to the ground soon after they bloom.
Today, the idea has changed completely. Tradition now calls on cherry blossoms to bring good luck during a wedding ceremony. “Sakurayu,” or cherry blossom tea, is often served at weddings for this reason.
Novels as well as poems have often drawn public attention to the cherry blossom – especially for a sort of melancholic contrast between its beauty and short lifespan. One famous novel, “Under the Cherry Trees” by Motojiro Kajii (1901-1932), skips the beauty part altogether in its introduction and draws a direct correlation between death and cherry blossoms.
According to the novels opening, “Dead bodies are buried under cherry blossoms! You have to believe it. Otherwise, you couldn’t possibly explain the beauty of the cherry blossom. I have been restless, lately, because I couldn’t believe in this beauty. But now I finally understand: Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees! You have to believe it.”
In fact, Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, home to the ash remains of around 360,000 unidentified war dead from World War II, is just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo’s most popular cherry blossom viewing area, Chidorigafuchi Park. And you may have noticed that cherry blossom trees are a common sight at gravesites and cemeteries as well as shrines and temples.
So I wouldn’t recommend digging around any cherry blossom trees to see what lies six feet under – evenv if you have had your fill of blossom viewing party beverages.
Whether true or tall tales, such trivia might make for some interesting small talk while viewing cherry blossom with your friends and family. No matter what you talk about, the sheer beauty of Japan’s cherry blossoms will likely take your breath away in the end.