Cherry Blossoms: Symbolism in Japanese Art

Image via Unsplash.

Cherry blossoms are beloved for their fleeting beauty. Native to Asia, cherry blossoms bloom briefly in the spring and are often dormant again after only two weeks. Despite the brevity of their appearance, the arrival of cherry blossoms corresponds to celebrations of spring across the world, including the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., which takes place from March 17 to April 15. Especially in Japan, where cherry blossoms are known as “sakura,” these pale pink blooms symbolize a variety of important ideals. They have come to represent significant historical events, as well.

Cherry Blossom Symbolism

In Japan, cherry blossoms represent a variety of abstract concepts, including:

  • The ephemeral nature of life
  • Hope and rebirth
  • Friendship and alliance

Left: A Japanese pierced iron tsuba, circa 17th or 18th century. Freeman’s (March 16); Right: A naval officer’s dirk. Lyon & Turnbull (March 20).

As early as the 8th century, cherry blossoms were thought to be connected to the sacred value of life in Japan. When the samurai class rose to power in the 12th century, they adopted the cherry blossom as a symbol of morals expressed through the bushido code, going so far as to decorate equipment like sword guards with the cherry blossom emblem. Due to the impermanence of cherry blossoms, they are often invoked to honor the sacrifice of military men and women in Japan in the modern age, as well.

Cherry blossoms also symbolize friendship and alliance. In 1912, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo presented the city of Washington, D.C. with 3,000 cherry trees to symbolize the close relationship between the United States and Japan. Likewise, Japan gave the city of Philadelphia 1,600 trees in 1926 to commemorate 150 years of the United States’ independence. To reciprocate, the U.S. gifted flowering dogwood trees to Japan in 1981.

Lot 204: Qi Fan, fan format decorated with cherry blossoms, late Ming/early Qing dynasty. Doyle (March 19).

Beyond the United States, Japan has given a gift of cherry blossom trees to many other countries including Brazil, Germany, and China, where the cherry blossom is also culturally significant. In many countries that have been presented with cherry blossoms from Japan, it has become customary to mark their flowering with festivals celebrating Japanese culture. Likewise, the event in Japan is observed annually.

Hanami: A Centuries-Old Tradition

In Japan, the arrival of the cherry blossoms in late March signals hanami, a traditional custom in which groups of friends or neighbors picnic under the blooming trees. The practice of flower viewing has existed for many centuries, but the term “hanami” became synonymous with cherry blossoms during the Heian period (7941185). At that time, the custom was restricted to the aristocracy, but it soon became popular across social classes.

Left: Shuzan, Japanese Satsuma vase from the Meiji Period. Sold via A. B. Levy’s (August 2017); Right: A lacquer picnic set, 19th century, Sold for $1,080 via Christie’s (September 2005).

Cherry Blossoms in Japanese Art

The cherry blossom motif is popular in both ancient and modern Japanese art, and paintings across virtually all periods and dynasties depict hanami celebrations. Poetry and folk music, too, have made many mentions of cherry blossoms throughout the centuries.

Utagawa Hiroshige, “Kinryûzan no zu,” circa 1839-1842. Sold via Lempertz (June 2016).

In the Edo period (16001868), seasonal themes were popular among artists who specialized in ukiyo-e, which translates to “images of the floating world.” This term describes a genre of works depicting a variety of subject matter, including kabuki actors, folk tales, nature, and erotica. Ukiyo-e artists typically created paintings and woodblock prints, a technique through which images are printed onto paper in ink after being chiseled into a block of wood.

A furisode (wedding kimono), early 19th century. Sold via Christie’s (May 2009).

Cherry blossoms are so prevalent in Japanese visual culture that they appear in everything from kimono design to the back of the 100 yen piece. In the past few decades, cherry blossoms have also begun to appear in manga, anime, and contemporary pop music.

Though their rich history extends far into the past, cherry blossoms are just as popular with contemporary audiences. As new flora blooms for spring, cherry blossom trees planted across the United States and the world will receive thousands of visitors.


The National Cherry Blossom Festival
For Hundreds of Years, Cherry Blossoms Are Matter of Life and Death | PBS
Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship | Library of Congress

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