When Spring arrives in Tokyo, the entire city is transformed. I’m not just talking about the obvious transformation of thousands of previously barren trees suddenly bursting with fluffy clouds of cherry blossoms. I’m also talking about the attitudes of the people. I am amazed at the sight of a salaryman rushing off to his job suddenly coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk, gazing up at the beautiful blossoms of the cherry tree, mesmerized. And I too, have found my gaze lingering too long on a lovely cherry tree before suddenly remembering that I’m operating a moving vehicle.
In the parks, people gather in the evenings and often all day on the weekends, to sit underneath the cherry blossoms enjoying one another’s company and consuming a meal (and often copious amounts of alcohol) and literally breathing in the beauty of Spring. I imagine hanami in Japan has the same effect on the work week of Sweet Sixteen / Final Four week in America; I’m sure if companies could bring cherry trees into the office much like American companies bring in the cable television, they would certainly do so.
So what is it about hanami that is so compelling that it brings productivity in the world’s third largest economy to a near standstill? There have been many theories on this topic (including one which suggests that the DNA of Japanese people has changed to make them more attentive to it, but I’ll skip that one), but I chose a couple of ideas that make sense to me, both based on Buddhism, which has existed in Japan for over a thousand years and is well known to have a strong influence on Japanese culture as a whole.
The first idea is about suffering, a concept that is basically at the center of Buddhism. In fact, the Buddhist view of “heaven”, or nirvana, is the state of mind of being totally without suffering. Christians, of course, share this view though that is only one aspect of heaven. Buddhism encourages exploring human suffering as a means to recognize it and its root causes.
In less modern times, Japanese suffered through brutally cold Winters in shelters that were not designed to keep out the cold (actually, you could say this about most modern Japanese homes as well, but that’s another blog topic altogether). Food had to be stored from harvest and vegetables were mainly the tasteless root veggies that could be foraged. I’m sure many people especially the very young and old did not survive the freezing winter in Japan. The coming of Spring was a huge relief in many ways, and the blossoming cherry trees were a sign that the worst was over. Therefore, Spring was a time to celebrate life, or in some cases, simply survival of the Winter. The harsh suffering of Winter magnified the beauty and promise of Spring.
The second idea is about the impermanence of life, or Mono no aware (物の哀れ) in Japanese Buddhism. Hanami can last a week, maybe two if the winds and rain are gentle. But soon, their lives come to an end. A Japanese tanka, or poem summarizes this idea:
散ればこそ いとど桜は めでたけれ 憂き世になにか 久しかるべき
Rough translation: Cherry blossoms are beautiful because they scatter. There is nothing eternal in the world.
The impermanence of the cherry blossoms is what compels Japanese people to spend their evenings and weekends camped out underneath them, braving crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in some cases. They know that by next week, they may be gone. There is something bittersweet about hanami, a beautiful hope that is quickly gone.
Of course, this all must come back to the gospel. Hanami is beautiful, but lasts only for a short season and is gone. It offers the hope of life, but as the poem reminds us, there is nothing eternal in this world. If we want eternal hope, we must look beyond this world. And when we do, we see Jesus, offering life and hope through believing in Him. For Jesus said in the Bible, referring to those who believe in Him: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28). Later, the Apostle Paul will also write to his fellow Christians: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope.” (Romans 15:13)
The message of eternal hope is the reason we came to Japan in the first place. We believe there are many Japanese who have never had the chance to hear this message and are literally dying to receive it. The gospel isn’t about us trying to convince people they should become Christians. The gospel is already in itself the most compelling reason for people to believe in Jesus. But it is up to the individual to make that personal choice to accept it or not.
With that, I leave you with some beautiful images of hanami in Tokyo and remind you that this is a mere glimpse of the glory contained within the gospel message, the story of God’s love for the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. This Sunday is Easter, and every Christian church in the world will be focusing on the wonderful gift of Jesus, so if you’ve never heard that story, here are some great places to find out more.
Grace City Church Tokyo (Japanese / English): See website for location and time