The contrasting national flowers of Japan and Korea
Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 26, 2007
The Japanese Meteorological Agency can usually be counted on to nail their annual cherry blossom forecasts, and they were spot on again this year, too. The local TV station led off their dinner-hour news program earlier this week with an agency update reporting that the buds on the area’s cherries would start opening on the 25th. A walk in the park around the prefectural offices this morning confirmed that the trees had indeed begun to flower.
Over the next month, the media will continue to provide daily updates on the sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, as the location of those areas with newly blooming trees moves gradually up the archipelago until the last of the flowers emerge for the spring in Hokkaido at the end of April.
It’s no surprise that the Japanese should get it right when the subject is cherries. Hanami, or parties for viewing cherry blossoms, first became popular among the aristocracy during the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries), and reached an extreme with Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century. The custom spread among the common people during the Edo period, and it’s still a part of the annual cycle of events today. Everyone’s been to a hanami at least once.
Spend some time in Japan, and you’ll soon understand the reason; a park with cherry blossoms in full bloom is stunning in its loveliness. Is there any other country in which such a commonplace act as a picnic in the park is infused with such natural poetry? Yes, some at a hanami may drink too much and sing too loudly, but isn’t the purpose of a party to eat, drink, and be merry? Besides, the revelry seldom gets out of hand, and the Japanese have a knack for tuning out the neighbors when the occasion demands.
One reason the cherries have such a hold on the popular imagination is that their peak period of beauty is so brief. The entire season for the flowers lasts little longer than three weeks from beginning to end. For the Japanese, the cherries are a symbol of the impermanence of life, and they frequently use the word hakanai (short-lived, fleeting, transitory) to describe both the flowers and the evanescence of existence. In addition, the verb chiru, meaning to be scattered or fall, is used to describe the scattering of the cherry petals. In some instances, the same word also is used to mean death. Accounts of the Second World War often speak of the many young lives that “chiru” on the battlefield.
These ephemeral qualities are one facet of a fascinating contrast between the informal national flowers of Japan and Korea. While it may not occupy the same place in the Korean imagination as cherries do in Japan, the Rose of Sharon (mugunghwa in Korean, mukuge in Japanese) serves as a similar symbol. The cherry, as we’ve seen, is a fragile blossom that quickly reaches its peak and just as quickly disappears. The Rose of Sharon is the opposite. A hardy plant, it continues to bloom from June to October through the hottest months of summer, and each plant produces several thousand blossoms a year.
The Koreans are said to find this hardiness appealing. One adjective that often crops up in Japanese descriptions of Koreans is shibutoi—tenacious and enduring. Tenacity is an essential survival trait when you’re the runt in a neighborhood that includes the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, and Mongolians.
Korean references to the national flower date as far back as the Silla Kingdom, (57 BC-935 AD), which metaphorically referred to itself as Mugunghwa Country. The South Korean national anthem, Aegukga, has the line, “Mugunghwa filled three thousand li of splendid rivers and mountains…” (A li is roughly 2.44 miles, making this lyric an echo of the phrase about cherries in the old Japanese song Sakura, Sakura: “miwatasu kagiri”, or as far as the eyes can see.) One of the trains in the national railway is called the Mugunghwa. And in a good-humored touch, the Koreans use pictures of the mugunghwa flower rather than stars to rate hotels.
There is a theory in Japan that the cherry is so popular because the Japanese prefer flowers that are falling rather than flowers that are blooming. That would explain their love for the cherry—even a relatively mild breeze is enough to send a spray of petals floating like so much pink snow. When the cherry motif is used on television, such as a backdrop for the performance of a song, the blossoms are often shown fluttering to the ground, rather than in a static scene. The attraction for the Japanese is the brevity of the beauty, which contains an intrinsic poignancy and tension.
The meaning of the underlying Chinese characters for mugunghwa, however, is quite the opposite. The characters are 無窮, which is pronounced mukyu in Japanese. It means endless or eternal.