Japanese people have a very special relationship with nature. They believe in the concept of “harmony with nature”, and have many seasonal festivals that aim to celebrate the beauty of nature in all of its manifestations. The most famous one is Hanami, in spring, where Japanese people have picnics in parks and enjoy the blossoming of cherry trees, but there are many more. There are festivals for moon-viewing, festivals for snow-viewing, and so on. Nature in Japan has many meanings, it’s viewed both in a symbolic and religious way, and it’s one of the favorite subjects of classic Japanese art and poetry. As a part of nature, plants and flowers conform to the same view. Plants have a high symbolic meaning, like the pine tree, that symbolizes the wait, longevity and good fortune, or the peony, which is said to be the king of flowers. Two flowers are considered Japan’s national flowers, the sakura (cherry blossom) and the chrysanthemum. Let’s find out more about these flowers.
The cherry blossom is the most recognizable symbol of Japan. It’s depicted in countless paintings, described in stories and poems, celebrated in songs and movies. The festival dedicated to cherry blossoms-vewing is the Hanami, that takes place in spring.
It is so important that the cherry blossom front is carefully watched every year. It’s something even the news talk about! During Hanami Japanese people have huge picnics in parks, they eat, drink, and listen to music while surrounded by a white-pink storm of falling petals. Cherry blossoms only last for a couple of weeks, and for this characteristic, combined with their beauty, they became a symbol for the evanescence of life. For the same reason, sakura also became the symbol of the samurai class. There is a saying that goes: The cherry blossom among flowers, the warrior among men (in Japanese: 花は桜木人は武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi). There’s also another very important flower in Japanese culture, the chrysanthemum.
The yellow chrysanthemum is the symbol depicted in the Imperial Seal of Japan, also called the Chrysantemum Seal (菊紋 kikumon). If you have ever seen a Japanese passport, you’ll have surely noticed the yellow flower depicted on the cover. That’s the 16 petal chrysanthemum, which represents the authority of the Japanese Emperor.
Also other members of the Imperial family can use the yellow chrysanthemum as a symbol, but in a 14 petal version. The chrysanthemum is so important, it even gave the name to the Emperor’s throne! Like the cherry blossom, chrysanthemum too has a festival in its honor: The Bunkyo Kiku Matsuri, which is held at Yushima Tenjin Shrine in November. During the festival, chrysanthemum flowers are arranged in the shape of a doll.
The art of arranging flowers is very important in Japan, as we’ll see in the next paragraph about Ikebana.
Ikebana is yet another example of the strong connection that exists between Japanese people and nature. Ikebana is not just the art of arranging flowers, it is a way to come closer to nature, to create harmony between nature and men.
The key aspect of Ikebana is minimalism: The art is not based on the number of flowers, but it focuses on the harmony of the composition instead. The origin of ikebana is not sure, but it probably evolved from the Buddhist practice of offering flowers to the dead. Nowadays there are hundreds of ikebana schools and styles that developed throughout history. Ikebana is a very important aspect of Japanese culture, and as such is taught in schools.