Celebrating Spring Amid Devastation In Tokyo
Spring seems far from Tokyo's Ueno Park on a chilly Sunday under steely gray skies. Signs put up by the municipal government are scattered around the park, advising visitors not to picnic under the cherry blossoms, as is the national custom at this time of year.
The idea is that people should be mourning the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami, not celebrating the coming of spring.
The signs reflect the views of Tokyo's 78-year-old governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who is campaigning for a fourth term in this month's elections. Ishihara co-authored the 1989 book The Japan That Can Say No, in which he argues for a more assertive foreign policy, particularly toward the U.S. Ishihara recently apologized for remarks in which he said the tsunami was divine punishment for Japanese people's greed.
In spite of the signs, hundreds of people are picnicking or strolling in the park, although folks say things are slightly more subdued than usual.
Walking among the picnickers is Makku Akasaka. With recorded music and a bottle of sake, he's out campaigning as the sole candidate of the obscure "Smile Party."
He says he disagrees with the governor's injunctions against hanami or cherry-blossom viewing.
"Refrain[ing] from entertainment, including hanami, is a negative mind," he insists, dressed in a furry hat. "Most important thing for Japanese people is to rebuild, and so they need [a] positive mind."
Hanami, Japanese will tell you, is an expression of the aesthetic sensibility in the Japanese soul. Or, at least, it's a very popular sort of affectation, says magazine editor Yoshi Tsujimura.
"Even if you're just there to have fun and enjoy the beautiful cherry blossoms," he says, "it's a part of Japanese people's character that they have to appreciate it — or at least act like they appreciate on a level beyond mere physical beauty."
In one part of Ueno Park, Tokyo resident Hitomi Onishi and two girlfriends are playing karuta, a favorite hanami game in which players take turns reciting poems from a deck of cards.
She reads the famous verses of 9th-century court poet Tomonori Kino:
On a spring day with soft rays of sun
Flower petals fall restlessly
There is no peace in my heart.
Nearby, schoolteacher Masujio Shimozaki sits on a tarp under the overhead explosion of pink and white cherry blossoms. He's enjoying some sushi, cheese and whiskey with four friends.
Shimozaki says he doesn't need governor Ishihara's civics lessons about how to respond to natural disasters.
"I'm the sort of person that, if you tell me to look right, I look left," he harrumphs. "It's important to have a diversity of opinions. But we definitely brought less food than in years past. We're trying to conserve in our own way, while still enjoying each others' company."
He mentions hakanasa, one of several Japanese words to describe human sensitivity to the poignant fact that cherry blossoms, like life and beauty themselves, are short-lived, and that nature produces tsunamis as well as spring blossoms.
"I think beauty and pain exist together and can't be separated," he muses. "When you look at the cherry blossoms, there's hakanasa in their beauty."
Japanese point to 17th-century haiku master Basho as someone who wrote about acceptance — or transcendence — of the mingling of beauty and sadness. Many of his later works are characterized by karumi, a Buddhist-influenced sense of lightness and detachment, sketched in this poem:
See the real flowers
Of this painful world.
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