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Sakura and the Japanese Mind
By Shigeru Awagi
Translated by Etsuko Yanagibori

Sakura is the spiritual place of rice paddy gods.

People in Japan started to culture rice in the Yayoi period (1900 years ago). The rice culture came from outside of Japan, with implements, technique, and also mythology, religion, manner and custom. For several centuries, Japanese culture affected and assimilated rice culture. In old Japanese villages especially, magical action and the spirit of religion were mixed with a part of traditional Japanese culture. The rice crop civilization linked with "sakura," a religion of magic. Old Japanese saw the same spirit in the sakura and rice flowers. The gods who lived in sakura trees came down to the rice garden from the mountains to give a richer rice harvest. People thought that mountain sakura was a spiritual place of the harvest gods.

Cherry blossoms bloom in deep mountains. Old Japanese people predicted a successful harvest. People saw mountain gods in the fullness of cherry blossoms, and they consecrated these blossoms to the gods. They believed that the gods gave them a rich harvest of rice. Japanese people had lived with the changing seasons of nature in their agricultural culture. The people were broad-minded and gentle because of nature. They believed in the religion of nature worship. It was an archetype, the inner climate of Japan.

Court nobles who were captivated by Ume (apricot blossoms) in the Nara period.

In ancient Japan, cherry blossoms were objects of religious veneration. Since the Nara period (710-784AD) cherry blossoms were cultivated in villages. Ume (Apricot blossoms) pleased the Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty, and the Japanese nobility in the Nara period, who were captivated by the color and scent. Ume blossoms bloom before Sakura. Sakura is gorgeous. Ume is elegant and graceful. The noblemen were enthralled by apricot blossoms. They preferred to eat the plums after enjoying the blossoms too.

In spring apricot blossoms bloom first.
I was looking for the blooming alone in twilight
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ~ Yamanoueno Okura.

The viewing of blossoms culture came from China and penetrated the Japanese nobility. It was called "Miyabi", aristocratic culture. With sakura, cherry blossoms, it is of course popular in Japan in this age too. There are sakura poems in Manyo Poetry.

Prosperous Nara city,
The beauty of a full scent of cherry blossoms,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .~ Onono Oyu

Manyou people who lived in the Nara period liked sakura and ume both. They enjoyed sakura after ume blossoms. But the poetry selections of Manyou poetry included about 120 ume poems. Sakura poetry only accounted for 40 poems in the Manyou poetry book (over 4500 poems). They might have thought that Ume blossoms were fresher.

The Manyo poetry collection contains the oldest extant poetry in Japan. Comprised of 20 volumes of poems, long and short, written by people of all classes and ages, between AD 400 and AD 759, it is said to contain the people’s living voice.

Sakura became major blossoms in the Heian period.

The way of thinking about sakura changed over the ages. The thinking of Sakura grew in people's minds in each age. In 812 AD, the Japanese capital city was moved to Kyoto by the Saga emperor, who started Hanami (cherry blossoms viewing) at Shisenen garden. Cherry blossom viewing was originally for Sechie (seasonal party of the upper ranges of society). The first title of the invocation of poetry at the party is Sakura (cherry blossoms).

Cherry blossoms became the most important flower of the party in the Heian period. The poetry of the Heian period was refined and elegant in the beauties of nature. A lot of noblemen made Sakura poems.

Looking at the Mountain Sakura in mist
I miss a person who looks at the Sakura
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ~ Kino Tsurayuki

If there were no cherry blossoms in the world,
My mind would be peaceful.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ~ Fujiwara Norihira

Many old Japanese poets made graceful cherry blossom poetry. Viewing cherry blossoms was a happiness in their lives. People read the poetry and people told their mind in the cherry blossom poetry. Sakura became a mentality of blossoms for Japanese.

Cherry blossoms are beautiful and perish.

Cherry blossoms bloom in spring, and are gone in a few days. People saw that their lives were like the cherry blossoms. The time is passing with falling cherry blossoms. People watched falling cherry blossoms with a sense of mortality.

Shining spring day
Falling cherry blossoms with my calm mind
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .~ Kino Tomonari

Japanese poets viewed the falling cherry blossoms variously. They represented beauty in the Japanese consciousness.

Cherry blossoms are glorious and pure.

Presently, a deep mind loves cherry blossoms. Prominent people live within the cherry blossom spirit. Saigyo is one of the great priests of the age.

Wishing to die under cherry blossoms in spring
Cherry blossom season in full moon time
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ~ Saigyo

Sleeping under the trees on Yoshino mountain
The spring breeze wearing Cherry blossom petals
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ~ Saigyo

So, the cherry blossom holds a popular place in Japan. People journey to find beauty; the symbol is sakura. People look for something deep in the sakura. Sakura became a symbol of the Japanese mind. The falling of cherry blossoms was used to represent the Japanese Samurai spirit. After the Edo period, the Japanese people loved to view cherry blossoms on their holidays. This is the basis of the Japanese concept of cherry blossoms in Haiku. Haiku is a search for the beauty, falling, purity and spirit of cherry blossoms' inner part.

Shigeru Awagi was born in 1926, in Miyazaki-ken, Japan.

He taught Japanese Literature 39 years.

Retired, he currently teaches at Miyazaki Women's College. So much for retirement.

Awagi started writing Haiku in 1945. Upon his retirement, he joined "Fuu" Haiku Kai and is a member of Kusanohana Haiku Kai, under the tutelage of Master Akegarsu since 1955. He is Doujin of Kusanohana Haiku Kai.

Awagi's haiku book, Ganraikou (Cockscomb) was published last year.