Flora and fauna are widely used within Japanese tattoos, enhancing the design and framing the main image, often overlooked and only appreciated for their visual impact. In Western cultures we also see this use of plants in design, with different plants holding deeper meaning for different cultures. In England it’s the rose, in Scotland the thistle, and in the Netherlands it’s the tulip. However, for Japan the plant motif of choice would have to be the cherry blossom, or sakura.
Japan has a long history with nature stretching from bonsai trees and zen gardening to the art of flower arrangement, or ikebana. Each and every plant has deep rooted symbology, but none quite as much as the cherry blossom, to which the month of April, when they briefly bloom, is dedicated. The blooming of the cherry blossoms, or o-hanami, is a celebration stretching back to the 9th century and marked by family and friends going to their local park for a picnic. There they enjoy food, drink and each other’s company, all while the delicate confetti of petals falls around them like a soft, pink snow.
An old saying from the 18th century was made popular by a kabuki play inspired by the Legend of the 47 Samurai (Chushingura) and draws upon the symbolism of the cherry blossom: ‘Hanawa sakuragi, hitowa bushi’ (花は桜木、人は武士). Translated it reads as ‘Cherry blossom trees are to flowers as samurai are to humans’. It describes the fleeting beauty of the cherry tree in life and death and how the noble samurai will live and die with dignity and honour, acknowledging the similarities between the two.
This symbolism of the fleetingness of life and beauty of death was not a new idea to the 18th century however, and legends tell of a general named Sakanoue no Tamuramaro who was ordered to go battle in Emishi in the north of modern Japan in the 8th century. On his long journey his fleet harboured at Isawa village where the Kubo clan leader prepared a banquet in honour of Sakanoue. Here Sakanoue met the daughter of the leader, Otama, and the two fell deeply in love despite the fact that he would have to set sail for Emishi. Otama waited, not knowing if he would survive and longing for his return. After a long 4 years, Sakanoue sailed back victorious to meet with his sweetheart once again. However, he arrived to tragedy, as he was informed that she had died of a broken heart while waiting for his return. Heartbroken, he planted a cherry blossom tree in her memory and tended it until his death. This sakura still exists today, and it is said that when it is in bloom, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro’s spirit comes down and rakes the petals. The print shown is from Yoshitoshi’s 100 Moon series and takes inspiration from this tragic tale.
Throughout Japanese history up to the present, the use of the sakura motif is extremely popular, influencing art, fashion and entertainment including the 2020 Olympics logo, not only for its beauty, but also its deeper meanings. Next time you see a cherry blossom tree let it inspire you, and reflect on the way you live your life and the choices you make. It is a reminder that there is not only beauty in life, but also in death.
Text: Eddy Wertheim for Japanese Gallery Kensington