How Sakura Blossoms Gained Cultural Significance in Japan

How Sakura Blossoms Gained Cultural Significance in Japan

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Sakura cherry blossom tree in Miyagi.
The famed Hitome Senbonzakura of Miyagi Prefecture.
The sakura (cherry blossom) is practically synonymous with Japan. Here's a deeper look at the history of this fascinating flower's popularity

When you hear the word ‘hanami‘, you probably picture cherry blossoms. Nowadays, the sakura, or cherry blossom tree, is practically synonymous with Japanese culture. But what lead to the worldwide popularization of these small springtime blooms? Here’s a deeper look at the history behind this fascinating flower and the traditions associated with it.

Sakura in History

The sakura (桜), or cherry blossom, is the national flower of Japan. Today, the pretty pink petals are the main feature of the popular pastime, hanami (花見, flower viewing). However, the significance of the sakura predates even that much-beloved tradition. 

Before people celebrated sakura season by picnicking under the trees, they held the flower in a much more spiritual regard. Farmers heralded the sakura tree as a symbol of the time for planting, as cherry blossoms typically bloom right before the annual cycle of rice cultivation. They believed each sakura tree housed a deity, and made offerings every year for a bountiful harvest. [1]

the sun through the sakura blossoms. Photo by Krys S.
Watching the sun through the sakura blossoms. (Photo by Krys S.)

A Sakura By Any Other Name

There is much speculation about the origin of the word ‘sakura’ and its kanji spelling. (There are at least 13 theories on the etymology of the word, according to the Mainichi Shimbun). [2] Here, I’ll cover the most popular.

The first appearance of the word ‘sakura’ dates to the Nara Period (710-794) in the Man’yoshu, Japan’s oldest existing poetry anthology. One popular theory states that the ‘sa‘ from ‘sakura’ derives from ‘sagami‘ (or ‘Sa no Kami’), the name of the God of Rice Fields in traditional Shintoism. ‘Kura’ comes from the word meaning ‘seat’, ‘storehouse’, or ‘vessel’. In other words, a sakura tree was a ‘vessel of the rice field deity’. 

It also appears in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest historical record dating to the 700s, as well as the Nihon Shoki. Both mention Konohana-Sakuya-Hime, the Shinto goddess of flowers and of the life-and-death cycle who dwells on Mount Fuji. Several other theories suggest the name stems from other words related to planting, such as ‘sakiura‘ (咲麗, which refers to the beauty of a blooming flower), ‘sakehiraku‘ (割開, literally ‘splitting open’), and ‘sakikumoru” (サキクモル, literally ‘blooming clouds’). [3][4]


The First Hanami: Plums Over Cherry Blossoms

The word hanami literally translates to ‘looking at flowers’. It doesn’t specify a singular type of flower. And though today, ‘hanami’ is practically synonymous with ‘cherry blossom viewing’, the first hanami had nothing to do with cherry blossoms at all!

The origin of hanami as a practice comes from a Chinese tradition, where the star of the show was plum blossoms rather than cherry blossoms. Plum blossoms themselves were imports from China, and played a big role in court life during the Nara Period. They were the center of landscaping in aristocratic gardens, as well as a popular theme in waka poetry. There are as many as 120 poems in the Man’yoshu all about plum blossoms! In accordance with tradition, nobles celebrated hanami by reading Chinese poetry while sitting under the trees. [5]

The Godfathers of Sakura

The shift in focus from plum to cherry blossoms happened in the mid-Heian Period, when Japan ceased sending envoys to China. From that point on, Japan set its focus on glorifying the sakura. The four key figures in the popularization of the sakura as the feature flower of hanami were Emperor Saga (786-842), Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and shoguns Tokugawa Iemitsu and Tokugawa Yoshimune. [5]

Emperor Saga held the first sakura-specific hanami in the year 812 after being struck by the beauty of a particular cherry tree at Jishu Shrine. Since then, cherry blossom viewing became a regular event at the imperial court and amongst the upper classes. By the mid-Heian period, the term hanami had become synonymous with cherry blossoms.

In the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), hanami gradually expanded from the aristocrats to the warrior classes. The fleeting life of the cherry blossom was often likened to the life of a samurai, who knew they could die at any moment on the battlefield. [1]

Sakura Hanami Expands to Common Classes

Hanami began as small, intimate events for aristocrats. With the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1600s, they also became an important part of samurai culture. At the time, only imperial courtiers and elite samurai could enjoy hanami. However, the custom would soon spread to the masses. 

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), pre-Tokugawa ruler of a unified Japan, would go on to popularize sakura all throughout the many provinces of the archipelago. He held two of the first large-scale hanami gatherings that set the stage for the mass gatherings that we celebrate today. In 1594, he welcomed 5,000 guests in a massive hanami party that lasted five days in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. Four years later, after planting about 700 sakura trees in Kyoto, he held another huge hanami for about 1,300 guests. [1][4]

The sakura at Daigoji Temple, Kyoto. Source: Wiki.

The third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu (1604-1651), is responsible for bringing the Yoshino cherry blossoms to Edo (now Tokyo). He started with his family’s funerary temple, Kanei-ji, in present-day Ueno Park, before the park was accessible to the public. Eventually, however, in an effort to share the sakura trees’ beauty with common classes, such as merchants and farmers, the shogunate started planting cherry blossoms in public spaces as well. [5]

In 1720, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751) planted trees along the Sumida River in Asakusa, and actively encouraged the planting of cherry blossoms in rural farming villages. Soon, feudal lords all throughout Japan jumped aboard the trend and began planting sakura trees in their own territories, popularizing the sakura tree and hanami all throughout Japan. [5]

“Evening Glow at the Koganei Border” by Hiroshige (1797–1858).

Celebrating Hanami in Modern Times

By the time the samurai class was abolished in the Meiji Period, the custom of hanami had already permeated the masses. So despite Japan’s mass push toward modernization and the adoption of Western culture, hanami remained. People no longer needed to be wealthy to enjoy the seasonal pastime. A fancy courtyard, high-ranking status, and expensive sake were no longer hanami necessities. Common folks could now grab a cheap bottle and some pals and head to the closest river bank. Activities shifted from poetry reading to partying with friends. 

Sake and sweets became the new prerequisite to a good hanami. In fact, this is where a popular expression comes from: 花より団子 hana yori dango (literally ‘sweets over flowers’). The implication is that nowadays, most people come more for the party than for the flowers. [5]

Forecasting Sakura Flowering with the Cherry Blossom Front

In 1951, the Japan Meteorological Agency started following the flowering trends of the sakura trees and developed the ‘flowering forecast’, using a complicated formula based on the mechanics of cherry blossoms and their blooming process. Sakura buds don’t grow in the spring. Rather they develop in the summer of the previous year and remain dormant throughout fall and winter. By analyzing the dormant stage and blooming statistics from the previous year, and taking the current temperature into consideration, it is possible to predict the next year’s approximate flowering period. [6][7] 

Due to private companies following suit and providing forecasts of their own, the Meteorological Agency eventually ended its forecasts. The three most popular flower forecast companies today are Weather Map, Life Business Weather, and Japan Weather. They still closely monitor 59 sample trees across the country to aid in the predictions. 

Forecasts track the blooming pattern from south to north, updating in real-time and indicating proximity to peak bloom by percentage. This is called the Cherry Blossom Front. While every year has some variation, sakura trees typically start blooming in mid-January in Okinawa. The Cherry Blossom Front usually reaches Tokyo and Kyoto by late March, ending in Hokkaido in late April or early May. [7]

Full bloom is when 80% or more of the buds on an index tree have blossomed. During this time, people hold hanami events all throughout the country. However, there’s only a short window of time before they start to fall – as little as two weeks!

Sakura front 2022 map
The 2022 sakura forecast map, courtesy of Weather Map.

Hundreds of Sakura Varieties!

Don’t be fooled by the popular pink petals you see everywhere during sakura season. There are more than a single type!

The Somei-yoshino tree is the most common variation, and the one you see in all the promotional images. Nearly 80% of Japan’s cherry trees are Somei-yoshino! However, according to the Japan Cherry Blossom Association, there are over 300 varieties of cherry blossoms in total, each differing slightly in size, shape, and color. [9]

Sakura cultivation experienced a boom during the Edo Period. Farmers cultivated the first Somei-yoshino during this time in Somei Village (present-day Komagome, Tokyo) as a cross between the Ohshima and Edohigan varieties. This became the standard sakura tree, as it was easy to plant and fast to grow, replacing the former most-common Yamazakura (mountain cherry) variety. Somei-yoshino is also the predominant index tree type in sakura mapping. [1]

Some sakura trees bloom at times other than spring. The jugatsu-zakura (October sakura) and the fuyu-zakura (winter sakura) both blossom regularly in spring and then again between September and December!

The Shiogama sakura is another special type of cherry blossom. This tree is so fascinating, not only is it a registered Natural Monument, it even has its own holiday! You can read all about the Shiogama sakura in a recent write-up by Unseen Japan’s very own Dr. Nyri Bakkalian HERE!

Peach, Plum, and Cherry: Telling Blossoms Apart

Although the cherry blossom established itself as the centerpiece of springtime, that doesn’t mean other types of blossoms are not in the picture. You can still see plum, as well as peach, blossoms along with sakura. However, to the untrained eye, they can be rather difficult to tell apart. The following are some key points to help you distinguish them. [10]

Shapes, Branches, Tree Trunks

In general, each of the three blossoms has five petals. However, it’s not so much the number as the shape of the petals and the way they attach to the branches that set them apart. Plum blossoms bloom individually and have round tips, with almost no stalk attaching them to the branch. Peach blossoms tend to bloom in pairs, with short stems and pointy petals. Cherry blossoms bloom in small bunches. Each flower has a long stem and a notch in the petals. This illustration demonstrates those differences more clearly.

Ume, momo, and sakura comparison.
From top to bottom: plum (ume), peach (momo), cherry (sakura).

Color and Scent

Each flower also varies in color and scent. Plum blossoms can be white, red, or pink with a mildly sweet scent reminiscent of jasmine. Peach blossoms can also be white, pink, or red. In some cases, blossoms of different colors can bloom on a single tree! They emit a soft, sweet scent from both the flowers and leaves. Cherry blossoms can be white, light or dark pink, and even yellow! Their scent is so faint, however, that it’s barely noticeable without practically shoving the flower to your nose. Fragrant sakura varieties also exist, but aren’t very common.

Trying to smell the cherry blossoms (photo: krys s)
Trying to smell the cherry blossoms in my local park! (Photo: Krys S.)

Flowering Times

Plum, peach, and cherry blossoms bloom in a specific order every year. Plum blossoms typically bloom from late January to late April. Peach blossoms bloom from early March to late April. Cherry blossoms bloom from mid-March to late April. Times may vary by year, and may overlap in some areas.

Hanami: More Than Just Sakura!

While sakura are the star of most hanami events, you can find peach and plum hanami as well! Plum hanami typically occur during the colder seasons, when people prefer hot matcha and amazake to beer. Peach hanami also exist, such as the Hanamomo Festival. Peach blossoms are also a popular part of decorations and displays for the Japanese holiday Hinamatsuri, on March 3rd. [10]

The Fleeting Life of Cherry Blossoms

The tradition of hanami has been around for centuries. However, some people fear that the Somei-yoshino trees are dying out. Planted after WWII, many of them are now in their elder years, and not likely to last much longer. 

According to the Cherry Blossom Association, cherry trees are not very hardy. [11] Shallow roots make them prone to damage, and they don’t fare well in dry conditions or sudden temperature changes. They are also prone to disease, and difficult to grow. New cherry trees struggle in areas formerly inhabited by the same type of tree, and require new, fertile land for optimum growth. Sakura also do not grow naturally from seed, but from cuttings. Because of this, many refer to them as ‘clone trees’. [12]

This limited gene pool and difficulty of cultivation means they are at risk of extinction should illness or environmental changes wipe out all those in existence before people are able to grow more. One theory suggests that without proper preventative action, all Somei-yoshino cherry trees could vanish within the next 60 years. [13]

Appreciating Sakura, No Matter Where You Are!

With travel restrictions still in effect in many places, and the looming fear of climate change wiping out these precious plants, sakura blossoms remind us to appreciate each moment before it’s gone. Unfortunately, for many of us, going to a hanami in person isn’t always an option. The Sakura Project shares fascinating 360-degree videos of various full-bloom sakura spots in Japan so you can experience a virtual hanami, no matter where you are! [14]

If you’re unable to make it to a live hanami this year, grab a few snacks, drinks, and a couple of friends, and settle into a comfy couch your very own hanami at home.

Meiji-era geisha attendeing a hanami celebration.

Japanese Geisha and Maiko: From Past to Present


[1] サクラ(桜)の歴史. 歴史memo

[2] サクラの語源を日本国語大辞典でみると… Mainichi Shimbun 

[3] 春の訪れを知らせる花 桜の名前の謎深き由来とは?. Hana Monogatari 

[4] 13+ Derivations of “sakura”. Cherry Blossom Epiphany: The Poetry and Philosophy of a Flowering Tree by Robin D. Gill

[5] 知っているようで知らなかったお花見の歴史. Sai-Jiki 

[6] 桜の種類、開花予想、花見の歴史…… 桜について知ろう. Nikkei4969

[7] なぜわかる?! 桜の開花予想のしくみ. Yahooニュース

[8] さくら開花予想2022. Weather Map

[9]日本の桜(サクラ)は何種類?よく知られる品種を徹底ガイド. Live Japan

[10] 梅、桃、桜、春を告げる3つの花の違いと見分け方徹底解説. Live Japan

[11] 桜の基本知識. 桜の会

[12] The History Of Hanami: Cherry Blossom Viewing Over The Ages. Savvy Tokyo 

[13] 満開の桜が見られなくなる? 60年寿命説、地球温暖化──花見に迫る危機とは. Yahooニュース 

[14] お花見 VR Sakura Project. Weather News

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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