Focus on Japan: cherry blossoms and an emperor’s birthday

By Lawrence I. Charters

Off Duty, April 1986, p. JPN-8

April is the time for warmer weather, cherry blossom festivals and the birthday of the world’s longest serving monarch.

April may be the best month to enjoy Japan. Given a little cooperation from Mother Nature, the month brings with it warmer weather, an important holiday and sakura, the Japanese cherry blossom.

“To understand the samurai,” states an ancient Japanese saying, “you must understand the cherry blossom.” Like most old sayings, when first heard there seems no logic behind the words. How can a simple, delicate, fragile sakura be compared to a strong, rough, armored samurai?

European cultures favor the rose above all flowers. Yet this hardy blossom, complete with thorns, is rarely, if ever, used to describe soldiers. In contrast, to Japanese eyes the fleeting life of a sakura seems to symbolize the brief life of the samurai: while the sakura bursts on the scene in colorful glory, it is doomed to fall and be carried away on the wind to oblivion.

From late March to early May, radio and TV stations throughout Japan carry regular news reports on the arrival of the cherry blossoms. Warm Kyushu sees the first blossoms, while northern Honshu and Hokkaido may wait as much as a month longer. In early April, TV broadcasts in the Tokyo area are often interrupted by hourly progress reports on the arrival of the sakura, and whole businesses close as workers rush off to hold impromptu hanami (flower viewing parties).

Kyoto and Kamakura are among the best spots for seeing cherry trees at their finest, though Iwakuni residents should not pass up Kikko Park and Miyajima, and Kanto residents should check out Tokyo’s Ueno Park and Yokosuka’ s Kannonzaki Park. Base tours offices are planning tours to Nikko, Hakone and the Fuji Five Lakes region, offering even more opportunities for seeing this very beautiful, very Japanese event.

April 29 is Tenno Tanjo-bi, the Emperor’s Birthday, and the start of Golden Week. The entire nation seems to shut down during this time as millions of people evacuate the cities and head off for vacations or visits to family and friends.

This year’s celebrations, for the emperor’s 85th birthday, will be particularly noteworthy. No emperor in Japan’s history has lived as long or reigned for as many years. This record. is particularly impressive when you consider there have been 124 emperors, in an unbroken line traditionally dated to 660 B.C. While modern scholars are unable to trace the dynasty back before the 5th century or so, there is no debate on the importance of the Imperial family or its central role in Japan’s history.

To honor the emperor’s service in the world’s oldest dynasty, several special events are planned to mark the holiday. At the time this is written (mid-January) , exact details are not ·available, but many base tours offices are planning trips to the Imperial Palace, as this is one of just two days during the year when the gates are opened.

During this time it might be helpful to know a little bit about Japanese customs. Note that the Japanese do not refer to the emperor as Hirohito. There is no family name for the Imperial family, and the emperor dropped his childhood name of Michi no Miya Hirohito when be became Tenno (Emperor: literally “heavenly sovereign”) on December 25, 1926. His name, then, is the same as his title, and he is most commonly referred to as Tenno Heika, often interpreted as” current emperor.”

The period of his service, on the other hand, is called Showa (“enlightenment and harmony”), this being the reign name he selected when he took the throne. When you hear references to the “Showa era” or hear the word Showa mentioned in radio and TV programs, this refers to the years from 1926 to the present, while Tenno Heika refers specifically to the current emperor.

Two other holidays follow the emperor’s birthday in quick succession as Golden Week spills over into May. The 40th anniversary of Japan’s constitution will be celebrated on May 3 during Kenpo Kinen-bi (Constitution Day), followed by Kodomo no-hi (Children’s Day) on May 5.

Children’s Day, formerly known as Boy’s Day, is particularly colorful as parents take their children to local shrines and temples for blessings. For a week or two leading up to Children’s Day, rooftops around the nation are decorated with large, resplendent carp-shaped kites. The Japanese treasure carp for their long lives.

Take care to do all your shopping and trip-taking before the start of Golden Week. Travel agencies shut down and trains and planes are booked months in advance, so don’t count on going anywhere in a hurry.

When things start up again in May, consider using your income tax refund (you did remember to file, didn’t you?) to finance a visit someplace else in the Orient. Japan is the doorway to .the Far East, and if you look through the pages of this issue you’re sure to find some exotic spot worth seeing on the other side of the door.

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