Seasonal Calendar of April

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

Sakura ( cherry blosssoms ) has bloomed in center Tokyo from the beginning of this week. Though some of the blossoms unfortunately have dropped because of the spring storm that hit Tokyo around the middle of the week, people would definitely crowd out this weekend for a ( lit. flower viewing ). So this month I think I'd write about this Hanami.

What is Hanami?


Hanami ( literally, flower viewing ) is a customary event in Japan from ancient times, to go outside and enjoy the coming of spring season, by viewing and appreciating the beauty of Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) or Ume ( Japanese apricot blossoms ). Though in most cases, the word Hanami almost always represents a party under the Sakura ( cherry blossoms ), which has become an annual major spring amusement in Japan today, especially under a lot of media exposure.

Usually around the beginning of April, parties are held eating and drinking under the Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) when it comes to full bloom, with new recruits or college freshmen experiencing their first job to find and keep the best spots. Whether because it is said from ancient times that 'Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) drive people to distraction' or because of the alcohol I don't know, but there are often orgies going on during these Hanami parties, that it also seems to have become an annual event for the news, to report how many people were taken to the hospital by ambulance each year.

Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) are found all over Japan, and they bust out in certain areas in a certain peiod during spring. Since the blossoms are blown off by the wind usually within less than a week, they leave a strong impression in people's minds every year, that its beauty and fugacity are often compared to fleetingness of a man's life.

Every year, the flower day forecast of each area is announced by the weather bureau, creating Sakura-Zensen ( literally, cherry blossom front ) based on the blooming of Someiyoshino ( a kind of Sakura ), connecting the areas which are forecasted the same day of blooming in a line. Many Japanese planning to go out for a Hanami including those who are planning a party, usually refer to these forecasts on scheduling their spring amusement. Parties beneath Sakura sometimes take place during night time with people enjoying Yozakura ( literally, Sakura at night ). In major spots of Hanami such as Ueno Park, paper lanterns are lit up and hung to bring up the atmosphere of the Yozakura.

The Origin of Hanami

There seems to be two theories that are said to be the origin of Hanami custom. One of them has it that the Japanese Hanami custom orginates from the ancient court custom of Hana-no-En ( literally, flower banquet ).

Japanese apricot

Stories are told that Hana-no-En ( literally, flower banqet ) the original Hanami practiced at Court, was a sort of elegant amusement among the celebrities, to compose a Tanka ( traditional Japanese short poem ) praising the blossoms of a single Ume ( Japanese apricot ) tree. Such custom is said to have took place at Court from around Nara Period (710-784) to Heian Period (794-1185) following in the footsteps of the developed Chinese culture of the Tang Dynasty, which are thought to have influenced Japan in many ways.

However, as Emperor Saga held a Hana-no-En viewing Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) instead of Ume ( Japanese apricot ) in Heian Period (794-1185), Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) began to gain attraction taking over the the position of Ume ( Japanese apricots ), becoming a typical flower for Hanami. By the middle of Heian Period (794-1185), the term 'Hana ( flower )' came to almost always mean Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) instead of Ume ( Japanese apricots ). Since then, the term Hanami seems to have become synonimous with Sakura viewing parties.

Origins Seen in Japanese Farm Culture

Another theory of Hanami origin takes us back to ancient Japanese farm culture even before the Nara Period (710-784). Sakura ( cherry ) trees were very important to the ancient Japanese farmers, since they believed in the existance of a deity who took control over their rice fields, with Sakura ( cherry ) trees playing a role as an announcer of the deity's arrival, as well as the beginning of the rice-planting season.

In the days long before the graceful Hana-no-En ( literally, flower banquet ) custom, Japanese in agricultural communities believed that a deity who lived in the mountains during the cold winter season, would come down from the mountains to temporarily stay in Sakura ( cherry ) trees in spring, and later move on to the rice fields where it ruled over the growth and harvest of rice.

To the farmers in those days, the blooming of Sakura ( cherry ) trees meant that the deity has arrived, therefore, they made offerings of food and Sake ( rice wine ) at the root of Sakura ( cherry ) trees. Later, they would partake the offerings to share some time together with the deity underneath the blossoming boughs of Sakura ( cherry trees ), praying for rich harvest in autumn. It is also said that the farmers seemed to have divined that year's harvest with Sakura ( cherry blossoms ), regarding that bad luck was coming their way when the blossoms fell all at once ephemerally in only a few days.

Sagami Worship

As you can see, Sakura ( cherry ) trees played an important role in ancient Japanese farm communities as an announcer of the mountain deity. But why did it have to be Sakura ( cherry ) trees? Why did people come to think that the mountain deity has arrived when the Sakura ( cherry ) trees began to bloom? Now, there seems to be a good reason.

Japanese ancestors are said to have worshipped many deities which are often explained as animism, in its earlier days of history before the appearance of Kojiki ( A Record of Ancient Matters, completed in 712, told to be Japan's oldest history book though stands more as a collection of myths and legends ) or Nihonshoki ( Chronicles of Japan, Japanese history book told to be completed in 720 ). But the most worshipped deity among them is thought to be a deity called Sa' ).

Unlike most other deities that appear in the myths and legends of Kojiki, Sagami did not have a Kanji ( or Hanji ) name, since Sagami was worshipped before Kanji characters began to be used in writings from around 8th century. However, the existance of this Sagami worshipping can be seen left in many old terms of Japanese place-names, such as Sagami ( now around Kanagawa prefecture ), 'Sa'do ( now Sado Island ), 'Sa'nuki ( now Kagawa prefecture ), To'sa' ( now Kouchi prefecture ), 'Sa'tsuma ( now around wetsern half of Kagoshima prefecture ), and more.

The Traces of Sagami Worship

Sagami worship goes beyond just place-names. In Fukushima prefecture, mountain deity is still said to be expressed as Sagami-sama ( -sama part is an honorific suffix attached to names ), while people crouch down and put their hands together at their front to pray, when they pay visits to the mountain shrines to offer prayers. This action of crouching down is represented by the Japanese term 'Shagamu', which is said to originate from 'Sa'-Ogamu ( literally, to worship and to pray for Sagami ).

Sagami was thought to live in the mountains during winter apart from the village where people lived, therefore the border between the world of deities and manned life is said to be expressed in the Japanese term 'Sa'kai ( literally, Sagami's area ), while a fence to distinguish these two worlds, is called 'Sa'ku ( literally, stakes of 'Sa' ).

When Sagami came down from the mountains to the village to let pepople know of the beginning of rice-planting, people called such action of this deity coming down as 'Sa'-Ori ( literally, Sagami coming down ), and this spring season was called 'Sa'tsuki ( old name for May, literally the month of 'Sa' ). And when the rice-planting actually did begin, young girls especially chosen and unhallowed to carry out this religious event, were called 'Sa'otome ( literally, young girls for Sagami ), who planted the rice seedlings called 'Sa'nae ( literally, Sagami's seedling ) in the paddy fields.

Sakura and Sagami Worship

Sakura ( cherry ), the name of the trees that came into full bloom around this time of year when the Sagami came down from the mountains in Satsuki ( lunar May, falls on around April of the Gregorian calendar ), were not an exception to these 'Sa'-related words.

The 'kura' part in the word Sakura, is thought to represent the meaning of a place for deities and spirits to be seated quietly, in archaic terms of Japanese. In other words, Sakura meant a seat for Sagami. No wonder that ancient Japanese made offerings of 'Sa'ke and 'Sa'kana ( a term used for additional food to go with Sake ) at the roots of 'Sa'kura trees to pray for rich harvest, or partook the offerings afterwards as O'sa'gari ( hand-me-downs, in this case from Sagami ). To the ancient Japanese who lived mainly on rice-planting, Hanami must have been an important event to worship and admire Sagami, who took control over their agriculture-based life.

The Development of Hanami Custom

From the fact that there are two different theories about the origin of Hanami with both of them being quite persuasive, it could be regarded that the Hanami custom actually did descend from two different derivations.

In Tsureduregusa ( Essays in Idleness, most famous essays in Japanese classic literature ) written by Yoshida Kenko somewhere between the 1310s and the 1330s, it is said that Kenko has written about the difference in court Hanami and the Hanami in agricultural communities. This seem to support the idea of Hanami having two different origins, later getting together to develop into the present style, while it also could be gathered from it that the Hanami custom was still practiced seperately around this time, which falls on about the end of Kamakura Period (1185-1333) to the beginning of Muromachi Period (1338-1573).

During Kamakura Period (1185-1333) which is often reffered to as the beginning of Samurai society in Japanese history, some of the court customs were handed down to the Samurai families from the court nobles. The flower viewing banquet of Hana-no-En was probably among such customs, taking little time to spread to Samurai society. Later this court-derived Hanami custom meets the farm rituals based on Sagami worship to be joined together, though exactly when is uncertain.

By Edo Period (1603-1868), the custom of enjoying Hanami around this spring season becomes widely spread among general people, against the background of Sakura (cherry ) tree planting in various places inside Edo ( now Tokyo ) city. It is told that originally there were no wild Sakura ( cherry ) trees growing inside Edo city, until the Edo Shogunate ( Edo government ) planted the first Sakura ( cherry ) tree in Ueno during the 1620s. Later, this Sakura ( cherry ) tree planting is said to have become a policy after Tokugawa Yoshimune became the 8th Shogun in 1716, to improve the tight economic conditions that started from the 5th Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's time, a couple of decades before Yoshimune's.

Hanami As an Amusement

Yoshimune is said to have planted Sakura ( cheery ) trees systematically in the suburubs of Edo city, such as Asukayama ( now Kita-ward ), Mukoujima ( now Sumida-ward ) or Gotenba ( now Shizuoka prefecture ), in order to send the city residents into rural areas expecting them to bring economic effects as consumers. As for rural residents, Yoshimune's Sakura ( cherry ) trees provided them with money spent by those who came to enjoy Hanami, as well as the enjoyment itself.

Although the planting was done as to promote tourism, and to improve the government's economical situation in those days, I guess it didn't matter much to the Edoites who loved traveling, partying and viewing flowers. The custom of enjoying Hanami spread quickly and widely among common people living in Edo ( now Tokyo ) city, playing a large role in establishing Hanami as a spring amusement. These Sakura ( cherry ) trees systematically planted nearly 300 years ago by Yoshimune, still remain today as famous Sakura viewing spots resulting in a success of his idea.

Today, Hanami has become a major spring attraction throughout the nation. Or perhaps it could be not just because of the Japanese sense of value to love Sakura's ( cherry blossoms ) beauty and fugacity, but because of the memory that has been burried in their DNAs, a memory of the ancient Sagami worship, that Japanese especially love and admire Sakura ( cherry blossoms ) so much.

Last Modified April 28th, 2007

Site of Reference

Hanami - Wikipedia ( English )

Hanami - Wikipedia ( Japanese )

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

Kankoyu Juutaku to Utsukushii Nihon no Fuukei ( Japanese )

Sake to Sakura to Sagamisama ( Japanese ) %E3%82%8C%E3%81%9A%E8%AA%9E%E3%82%8B/