Sakura and Kiku: Iconic Flowers of Japan

Out of the many colorful and visually appealing flowers of Japan, which would be considered Japan’s national flower? Many would consider cherry blossoms (known as sakura¹ in Japanese) due to its popularity culturally and socially, as well as its symbolic use in pop culture. Yet, would you be surprised to hear that it may have a contender for that position, which can be chrysanthemum (pronounced as kiku² in Japanese)? Could it actually be both? For this post, we will look at both cherry blossoms and chrysanthemum’s growing presence from Japan’s ancient past to the modern age of present times, and how they’ve been incorporated into the culture as iconic flowers in their own rights.

BEGINNINGS OF THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS

It is said that cherry blossoms became popular around the middle of the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). At the time, it was dotted on by Emperor Daigo in the use of poetry from the year 905. Before that, a flower that caught the eye of the upperclass was the plum blossom known as “ume” (梅). Researchers have determined this through the review of an older text called “Manyōshū” (万葉集), which features many poetic songs based on various topics including flowers. Many of these songs pertain the word plum blossoms in them. On the other hand, there isn’t at many songs regarding cherry blossoms. Since this book has been actively used among the imperial family years in advance, we get an idea that the cherry blossom’s popularity was initially not as old as one would think.

Pic of Emperor Daigo. From Wikipedia.

When appeal shifted in the favor of the cherry blossom, it’s possible that Emperor Daigo’s liking of this flower contributed to this through the following episode. In a 6-volume collection of recorded historical events called Kojidan (古事談), there is an entry regarding the 4th son of Emperor Daigo, Shigeakira (重明), who greatly admired cherry blossoms when he was little. He liked it so much that within his living quarters he had cherry blossom trees grown there. In the Shishinden (紫宸殿), the ceremonial grounds where the children reside within the Imperial palace’s, had plum blossom trees grown all around, which was commonplace. One day, the Shishinden caught on fire and was burnt down, including the plum blossoms trees. In some time it was rebuilt, but in place of the plum blossom trees, Shigeakira moved his cherry blossom trees to inhabit the new Shishinden. It was because of this incident that cherry blossoms grew to be among the Imperial families and noble families.

Eventually, cherry blossoms became popular among the populous throughout Japan. Cherry blossom trees were grown in different regions. Many admired its beauty, as well as its characteristics. For example, after cherry blossoms have fully bloomed, their petals fall off gradually. The falling petals are liken to snow, and if they are present during a snowy day³ they tend to be labeled as “yukizakura” (雪桜). Appreciation for its beauty was often shown as prints on clothing, as well as in ukiyo-e (浮世絵, woodblock painting). Bushi, or warriors of old also took favor of this flower in numerous ways during the Sengoku period (1467~1615), such as likening the wondrous bloom and slow, yet delicate, petal falls of the cherry blossoms to the the short life of a warrior who can claim greatness, yet have his life disappear at a moment’s whim. A popular phrase representing this is the following:


「花は桜木 人は武士」
(Hana wa sakuragi hito wa bushi)

“among flowers, the cherry blossom tree
among men, the warrior”


This basically refers to the cherry blossom being the best compared to other flowers, just as the warrior class was viewed as the more superior class of them all.

Cherry blossoms would be used as a sign of nationalism in various ways even by the Imperial army during the Meiji period (1868~1912) onward. This would last until the ending of WWII.

BEGINNINGS OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUMS

Chrysanthemum is a flower which was incorporated into the lifestyle of Japan by those who brought it over from China. This was around the time when the fashion, art, and etiquette of Chinese culture had a great influence in the development of Japanese society. There are different types of the chrysanthemum, which are listed in different ancient Chinese texts such as “Liji” (礼記, Book of Rites). It’s speculated that chrysanthemum was introduced to Japan around the 5th century, close to the ending of the Heian period. It’s 1st appearance within Japanese documentation is said to be in a 25-volume set of historical texts entitled “Ruiju Kokushi” (類聚国史, Topics related to National History of Japan), compiled in 892. One of the well-known lines that mentions it is located on the 11th page within the song verses in the 12th volume, section #715, which goes as the following (accompanied with my own English interpretation):


「己乃己呂乃 志具礼乃阿米爾 菊乃波奈 知利曽之奴倍岐 阿多羅蘇乃香乎」
(Kono goro no shigure no ame ni kiku no hana chirizo shinu beki atara sono ka o)

“Around this time, as the Autumn rain falls on the chrysanthemums
they will be scattered and surely die
oh so tragic what will befall their fragrance.”


On a literacy level, familiarity with the chrysanthemum can be said to have been among those who were wealthy and educated, such as the Imperial and noble families. It may have been appreciated by them as early as Nara period (710~794). For example, in the Manyōshū there are few poetic songs about it.

Popularity for this flower continued to grow, as the chrysanthemum would later appear within waka-style poetry⁴ in a Heian period book called “Kokin Wakashu” (古今和歌集, Collection from Ancient and Modern Times), which was a text conceived by Emperor Uda (宇多天皇), and later published through the order by his son & successor Daigo. Since it was an Imperial text, it too had great influences on other nobles, who would also grow to appreciate chrysanthemums a great deal.

Chrysanthemum is an Autumn flower, since that is the time it blooms. It was a favorite of Emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽) during the early Kamakura period (1185~1333). So much that it was chosen to be the Imperial crest. It would also gain a good amount of attention during the Edo period (1603~1868) and was shown off throughout many areas in Japan.

THE MANY IMAGES OF FLOWERS

The following are examples of images inspired by both cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums.

Cherry Blossom-themed Family Crests / 桜家紋 (from Hakko-Daioda.com )

Chrysanthemum-themed Family Crests / 菊家紋 (from Wikipedia)

Woodblock Art / 浮世絵 (from ukiyo-e.org and Wikipedia)

EVERYDAY USE IN MODERN TIMES

Out of the 2 flowers, cherry blossom is greatly beloved by the general public in Japan. Cherry blossom is a Spring flower, which coincides with hanami (花見), or flower viewing festivities which take place early during the same season. During flower viewing, the blooming of cherry blossoms attract the largest crowds, and get a lot of press & advertisements. Some of the attention comes from products promoting it as a flavor for candy, drinks, and so on.

Cherry blossom is visually used in various mediums in pop culture. For example, it is not uncommon to see an exquisite character make an appearance in a scene in one of many anime, accompanied by cherry blossom petals. Or, they may fall and dance around the screen of one of many video games which may have a samurai-like character do an impressive barrage of attacks with a katana.

Chrysanthemum, on the other hand, grows during the Fall. Depending on people’s lifestyle, chrysanthemums are used in different ways. For starters, it is popular flower art and in ikebana (生け花, flower arrangements). There is a type that is also called “shokugiku” (食菊), as it is used as decoration for meals. Chrysanthemum has auspicious meanings, such as longevity and rejuvenation. Thus, one can find it as patterns on kimono, accessories, good luck charms, dishware, porcelain, even on the 50-yen coin. Depending on the occasion, different colored chrysanthemums (minus white ones) are given as gifts.

Chrysanthemums play an interesting role in religious-related activities. For example, there is a national day with Shinto origins called “Chōyō no Sekku” (重陽の節句), that falls on September 9. It is also called “Kiku no Sekku” (菊の節句), or Chrysanthemum Day. It is a festival of happiness. The holiday was established in 910 AD when the first chrysanthemum show was held. In another instance, this flower is used in Buddhist-related traditions for honoring the dead. White chrysanthemums are offered to deceased loved ones’ graves.

While cherry blossoms are viewed as the flower for the populous, chrysanthemum tends to be seen as the Imperial flower. For hundreds of years the Imperial family have decorated their grounds with this, that it was eventually made the official seal to represent them. A special seal called “Jūroku yae Omotegiku” (十六八重表菊, 16-Petal double-layered Chrysanthemum) is used, which was later made forbidden for use by any one other than those of the Imperial family at one point in history. In the 1920s, as a showing of national pride, Japanese citizens are issued a passport with a different chrysanthemum seal on it, called “Jūroku hitoe Omotegiku (十六一重表菊, 16-Petal single-layer Chrysanthemum).

Yet, another example of chrysanthemum emblems can be found in shinmon (神紋), which are special seals that belong to shrines. Just like family seals, shrine seals have been in use for centuries, and vary in appearance depending on the shrine. In this case of the chrysanthemum, there are many types of shrine seals that use this flower, which are still in use today. The same can be said about cherry blossoms being used as shrine seals as well.

ENDING

Flowers have had a great influence on Japanese society for ages. Cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums are possibly the most iconic, for whether we look back to the past or gaze around us in present times, they both stand out almost identically. There is no clear distinction on which of these two are considered the #1 flower of Japan, but it’s safe to say that, whether you admire one or the other, they both serve their purpose in representing the spirit of Japan.


1) 桜. A much older kanji of this would be “櫻”.

2) 菊. The modern way of writing this kanji (菊) is derived from an older one, which is “鞠”.

3) It wasn’t unusual for some cherry blossom trees to grow during Winter.

4) Waka is written as “和歌” in modern times, but used to be written as “倭歌” in ancient times. They both mean relatively the same thing, “Japanese songs”. Waka consists of unique poetic patterns, which includes tanka (短歌, short poems that follow a 5-7-5 pattern), and choka (長歌, long poems which follow a 5-7-7 pattern). Another name for this style of poetry is Yamatouta (大和歌), which also has the same meaning.

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