The cherry blossom viewer
Another cherry blossom viewing (“hanami”) season has come and gone. Once again I did not participate. I was happy to abstain. The season for “hanami” lasts only about a week and, if the weather is poor, the afternoon picnics and drinking parties that take place in public parks can be spoiled. Two weeks ago we endured a violent spring storm with typhoon-strength winds that threatened the blossoms that were just then opening. And, this year has been much cooler than last year, giving us many days when sitting outside for a long time is uncomfortable. But at least we had no snow, which happened in 2009 and also in 1989. (About once every twenty years we can count on a late season heavy snowfall in the capital.)
In 2011 many people in Tokyo and across the nation refrained from celebrating the spring trees out of consideration for the 3/11 triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear power plant disaster. Some city governments even put up signs asking people not to party for that reason, making it seem like an edict. One thing about Japanese is that suggestions from officialdom often have the weight of law, so many people confuse the two, although in fact the government can not, nor may not order people not to party. Nevertheless, a majority restrained themselves in 2011.
So this year many people were psyched up more than usual with cherry blossom fever. I read a recent newspaper story reporting a dramatic upsurge in emergency ambulance calls and hospital emissions for binge-drinking related alcohol poisoning. There is speculation that people over-indulged this year as compensation for missing out last year.
Japanese queries about my cherry blossom participation are almost as common as questions about why I came to Japan, or what my favorite Japanese food is, or what I like about Japan, or what do I think of Japanese girls? I usually try to avoid the question - all of them, if I can - but when I can’t I tell the truth. I attended a cherry blossom viewing party once in my first year in Japan, 1989, but not a one since then. That was enough for me. Why? Is it because I don’t like alcohol? Well, I don’t drink at all, it’s true, but that’s not the reason. The reason is that you can’t see anything. There are so many frigging people in the way that you can’t see the trees. And, you can only see the blossoms by craning your neck and looking directly up, which is exactly what you see people doing with their cameras in hand if you happen to see footage of “hanami” on TV.
People are a nuisance. Tokyo is a densely populated place at the best of times, but for any kind of flower or Nature viewing they pack themselves so thickly that they actually spoil the view. In addition to the picnic garbage left strewn in the parks, the puddles of vomit everywhere, and the detritus of the blossoms littering the ground like a covering of rotting (not melting) snow I think cherry blossom viewing is one of the ugliest things I’ve ever endured. So, once for me and never again after that.
Of course, my opinion puts me directly at odds with one of Japan’s big cultural myths: the beauty of the cherry blossoms, and the unique Japanese esthetic sense in appreciating them. (Well, famous Japanese haiku poets have even written haiku about cockroaches, so go figure. I guess you need to have a 2,000-year-old culture in order to reach the point where you write poetry about vermin.)
There’s something here that’s relevant to many Asian cultures. Japan, Korea and Chinaespecially, but I can only speak familiarly about Japan. These corporate, group cultures lack a firm notion of one’s body being a physical impediment to others. People do not and maybe even cannot imagine themselves being IN THE WAY. Density is supposed to be warm, harmonious, and authentically human. Japanese society is supposed to resemble their thick, glutinous, short-grained boiled rice. It sticks together tightly and so do they. I see a manifestation of this different (or lack of) body consciousness every day when people walk along the sidewalk abreast of their friends, completely blocking the way to other pedestrians, and completely oblivious that they are blocking the way. Or, on stairways when people commonly ignore the keep-to-the-left rule and ascend or descend the stairs on the face of opposite traffic, and totally oblivious to it. Or, when there is a queue, customers cut in line completely oblivious to the fact that there even is a line. Or, people simply don’t pay attention to their surroundings and act in ways that would cause a collision in many other countries.
Ahhh, the cherry blossoms! The samurai spirit!