A cherry blossom is the name for the flower of cherry trees known as Sakura (Japanese kanji : 桜 or 櫻; hiragana: さくら) in Japanese. In English, the word “sakura” is equivalent to the Japanese flowering cherry. Cherry fruit (known in Japanese as sakuranbo) comes from another species of tree.
During the Heian Period (794–1191), Japanese sought to emulate many practices from China, including the social phenomenon of flower viewing (hanami: 花見), where the imperial households, poets, singers and other aristocrats would gather and celebrate under the blossoms. In Japan, cherry trees were planted and cultivated for their beauty, for the adornment of the grounds of the nobility of Kyoto, at least as early as 794. In China, the ume “plum” tree (actually a species of apricot) was held in highest regard, but by the middle of the ninth century, the cherry blossom had replaced the plum as the favored species in Japan.
Every year the Japanese Meteorological Agency and the public track the sakura zensen (cherry-blossom front) as it moves northward up the archipelago with the approach of warmer weather via nightly forecasts following the weather segment of news programs. The blossoming begins in Okinawa in January and typically reaches Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April. It proceeds into areas at the higher altitudes and northward, arriving in Hokkaidō a few weeks later. Japanese pay close attention to these forecasts and turn out in large numbers at parks, shrines, and temples with family and friends to hold flower-viewing parties. Hanami festivals celebrate the beauty of the cherry blossom and for many are a chance to relax and enjoy the beautiful view. The custom of hanami dates back many centuries in Japan: the eighth-century chronicle Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) records hanami festivals being held as early as the third century CE.
Most Japanese schools and public buildings have cherry blossom trees outside of them. Since the fiscal and school year both begin in April, in many parts of Honshū, the first day of work or school coincides with the cherry blossom season
In Japan cherry blossoms also symbolize clouds due to their nature of blooming en masse, besides being an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition that is often associated with Buddhistic influence, and which is embodied in the concept of mono no aware. The association of the cherry blossom with mono no aware dates back to 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga. The transience of the blossoms, the extreme beauty and quick death, has often been associated with mortality; for this reason, cherry blossoms are richly symbolic, and have been utilized often in Japanese art, manga, anime, and film, as well as at musical performances for ambient effect. The band Kagrra, which is associated with the visual key movement, is an example of this latter phenomenon. There is at least one popular folk song, originally meant for the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), titled “Sakura“, and several pop songs. The flower is also represented on all manner of consumer goods in Japan, including kimono, stationery, and dishware.
Cherry blossom is an omen of good fortune and is also an emblem of love, affection and represents spring. Cherry blossoms are an enduring metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, and as such are frequently depicted in art.
During World War II, the cherry blossom was used to motivate the Japanese people, to stoke nationalism and militarism among the populace. Japanese pilots would paint them on the sides of their planes before embarking on a suicide mission, or even take branches of the trees with them on their missions. A cherry blossom painted on the side of the bomber symbolized the intensity and ephemerality of life; in this way, the aesthetic association was altered such that falling cherry petals came to represent the sacrifice of youth in suicide missions to honor the emperor. The government even encouraged the people to believe that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms.
In its colonial enterprises, imperial Japan often planted cherry trees as a means of “claiming occupied territory as Japanese space”.