During my stay in Kyoto, Japan, in April 2011, the Japanese cherry blossom came into full bloom and attracted a sea of tourists to admire its beauty. I went out with a Japanese friend to see the cherry blossom in Sanjo Kawaramachi. It was then that I began to notice the Japanese grief of the transitoriness, when my friend said: “Any cherry blossom won’t last for more than ten days. And that’s why their beauty is so cherished by the Japanese.”

After getting a further understanding of Japanese culture by doing some readings, I am curious about how this particular emotion came about and whether it has the universality that transcends the national boundary.

Sense of transitoriness in literary works

The great war tale, Heikemonogatari(Tale of the Heike), begins its whole story with such a somber and dolorous opening:

The bell of the Gion Temple tolls into every man’s heart to warn him that all is vanity andevanescent. The faded flowers of the sala trees by the Buddha’s deathbed bear witness to the truth that all who flourish are destined to decay. Yes, pride must have its fall, for it is as unsubstantial as a dream on a spring night.[1]

Heike monogatari, which recorded the struggle between the Taira and Minamotoclans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century in the GenpeiWar (1180-1185), presents us the richest legends and the most vivid impressions of the medieval mind. The book’s pervasively tragic tone is sustained even in the treatment of these victors: for example, in the vivid detailing of the death in battle of the first great Minamoto field general of the Gempei War, Yoshinaka (1154-84), and in the foreshadowing of the doom of the second, Yoshitsune (1159-89).

The depressing tone of the book has its social necessity, when the high civilization of the Heian court waned and the country was plunged into an age of political upheaval at that time. Meanwhile, natural disasters, such as earthquakes and series of famines, accelerated their frequency and threatened the livelihood of people. Hojiki (An account of my ten-foot square hut), written by Kamo no Chomei(1153-1216), describes the grief and hardships of life due to a number of “calamities, including earthquake, fire, and famine that afflicted Kyoto during the late 1170s and early 1180s”.[2] Death was all but the most impending issue striking at the heart of everyone and pessimism pervaded among both the upper classes and the common people. Among these pessimistic feelings, one is not hard to find the sensitivity to the mutability and evanescence of all things, which had always been held traditionally by the Japanese.

A poem by Fujiwara no Mototoshi (1060-1142) expressed the same emotion:

I had been living on

for all those promises

like the dew drops

on the sasemo.

Yet again this year

Autumn passes,

and they evaporate.[3]

The dew drops that Mototoshi mentioned is a symbol of transience often found in classical Japanese. There are other traditional subjects, such as cherry blossom, spring night, dream and so on, to create a sorrowful sentiment about the fleeting and dreamlike beauty of both nature and human life. To have a browse on Japanese classical poems, such as Kokinshu (Anthology of ancient and modern poems), shinkokinshu and Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each), one can strongly feel this sentiment, the central idea of which had always been a beauty of perishability.

Possible historical, religious and social basis

In my opinion, the particular sense of transitoriness of natural beauty and human life arose from the mixed cultural background combined with historical, religious and social factors.

Firstly, it can be traced back to the primitive times of mythology. Kojiki, composed from the early 8th century as the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, recorded the story of Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. When he was sent down to the earth by Amaterasu to pacify the Yamato (ancestors of the Japanese), Ninigi one day met the beautiful Konohana-no-Sakuya-Bime and soon fell in love with her. Konohana was also called the Princess-Blossoming-Brilliantly-Like-the-Flowers-of-the-Trees, daughter of Ooyamatsu-Kami, the Deity Great-Mountain-Possessor. Ooyamatsu-Kami was very pleased that Ninigi would like to marry his daughter, so he sent Konohana to Ninigi, together with her elder sister, Princess-Long-as-the-Rocks. However, Ninigi sent Princess-Long-as-the-Rocks back because she was terribly ugly. Ooyamatsu-Kami was covered with shame at his elder daughter being sent back, and sent a message to Ninigi:

My reason for respectfully presenting both my daughters together was that, by sending Princess-Long-as-the-Rocks, the august offspring of the Heavenly Deity, though the snow fall and the wind blow, might live eternally immovable like the enduring rocks, and again that by sending Princess-Blossoming-Brilliantly-Like-the-Flowers-of-the-Trees, they might live flourishingly like the flowering of the blossoms of the trees: to insure this, I offered them. But owing to thy thus sending back Princess-Long-as-the-Rocks, and keeping only Princess-Blossoming-Brilliantly-Like- the-Flowers-of-the-Trees, the august offspring of the Heavenly Deity shall be but as frail as the flowers of the trees.[4]

So it is for this reason that down to the present day, human lives became short, like just that of blossoms.

Personally, I like this wonderful story very much. It sends some message that life, like the blossom of flowers and the morning dew, passes away so easily that its evanescent beauty becomes only too valuable.

Myths are made up according to human thought. In my perspective, this story is more like a deliberately-invented explanation, in order to provide a historical basis for the traditionally held sense of evanescence observed from Japanese culture and society. As a collection of myths composed at the request of the royal family, the purpose of this book was to a large extent to legitimate the authority of the Japanese emperor, by shaping its ancient fictions within a given moral and aesthetic mode. But on the other hand, those myths also got their inspiration from the people’s daily way of living and thinking. As a result of mutual influence between the authority and customs, some fixed values and emotions were thus established as a tradition, seeping into the life and thought of Japanese people and manifested in nearly every aspect of Japanese culture such as literature, philosophy, art, architecture, gardening, and so on. In turn, the sense of evanescence and melancholy was strengthened by such historical records or myths, literary works, folklores, etc.

Secondly, the sense of transitoriness and perishability had been developed from and strongly influenced by Japanese religions. Shintoism and Buddhism, which consist of the two main religions of Japanese, affect this emotion with a slight difference.

Shinto, the Japanese native religion, is the way of kami. Kami are defined in English as “spirits”, “essences” or “deities” that are associated with many understood formats: in some cases being humanlike, in others being animistic, and others being associated with more abstract “natural” forces in the world. Kami and people are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.[5] The core of Shinto lies in its belief that every natural object has its spirit and consciousness, including human beings. Therefore, even the mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks and so on, have their Kami inside, which are sacred and inviolable. In this respect, the sorrow of perishability largely refers to the frailty of natural spirit and human life under the destruction of evil. The Japanese poet Fun’ya no Yasuhide, who lived in the second half of the ninth century, once wrote:

The mountain wind

has just to blow

and the leaves

and grasses of autumn

wither and die.

That must be why

the character for “storm”

also means “destroyer”![6]

On the other hand, Buddhism, with its belief that the world is in constant flux, deepened and rendered more poignant this native feeling of impermanence. In Buddhist idea, all the living beings are bound in the suffering of samara, the round of repeated death and birth, because of their unwholesome Karma. Therefore, life becomes unpredictable as growing means perishing and passing away. Only when one reaches the enlightenment can he change this situation. Once he does so, he will be freed from the endless suffering of samara and transcend to the world of eternal bliss, where the transience and flux is gone and time stretches before him without an end. In this respect, more emphasis is put on the sharp contrast between the fleeting and mutable lifespan of natural objects and the eternity of time. Another poem written by Juntoku In (1197-1242) reads:

Memory ferns sprout in the eaves

of the old forsaken palace.

But however much I long for them,

they never will come back –

the days of old.[7]

Finally, this feeling has been strengthened by the harsh reality of frequent natural disasters and man-made calamities in ancient Japanese society. As is known, Japan is a country dogged with various natural events, such as earthquakes, typhoons, tsunami, fire, volcano eruptions, etc. Meanwhile, since the late Heian period, the power of the Emperor and aristocrats declined while the emerging samurai class was rising to the political center. During the warring states period, the real power of the government was shifting among series of political clans, ending in centuries of social turmoil. Against such social background, human mind tended to be more sentimental when natural beauty and human life could easily destroyed as if they were not worth a straw. Even in times of peace, such pessimistic feeling of evanescence and perishability still existed since it had become a deep-rooted idea in the mind of Japanese.

Particularity and Universality

As has discussed above, this sentiment of impermanence of beauty and life arose from Japan’s specific historical, religious and social backdrop, which shows its particularity. Besides, the particularity can also be exemplified by my own observation. In my home country, most Chinese families like growing plants, just as the Japanese do. However, there is a subtle difference in preferences between both sides. In China, both flowers and the flowerless plants are equally admired. The “Four Gentlemen”, namely pine, bamboo, plum blossom and orchid, are chosen out of various plants to stand for the idealist nobleman in traditional Chinese culture. As we can see, two are flowerless plants and the other half are flowers. We like the pleasing appearance of flowers with a beautiful color and fragrant smell; while we also love those flowerless plants with an undistinguished appearance because we believe in their imaginary inner beauty, which is to reflect the virtue of human heart.

In contrast, Japanese seem to have a preference for the external beauty of flowers. This is because they have a stronger feeling of the transitoriness and perishability of beauty. Therefore, they are more sensible to the shape, color and smell of the blossom of flowers. Cherry blossoms are a powerful symbol of Japanese acceptance of change and adaptability, for the blossoms will be gone in a week at most, and far sooner if there is a storm or a strong wind. “As a symbol of transient and momentary, these blossoms teach the importance of immersing oneself in the now, fully engaging in the beauty and wonder of those things which are momentary, and relearning that each and every occasion is an occasion of intrinsic value, for each breaks through the mystery of existence itself, into the forms of the momentary.”[8] Therefore, when I walk pass the gardens of Japanese family, I always have a good time appreciating the brilliant colors and sweet smell of various beautiful flowers.

However, the particular melancholy of evanescence and perishability is not unique to Japan but also prevalent in Chinese tradition from a larger picture. Chinese affection for pine and cypress, which are evergreens, reflects the unrelenting aspiration for longevity and eternity. In this respect, both Chinese and Japanese cultures share this subtle sentiment of impermanence. As an example, both of Chinese and Japanese pleasure gardens in ancient times were not necessarily intended to look cheerful: they were designed expressly to evoke the agreeable melancholy resulting from a sense of the transitoriness of natural beauty and human glory. This is where its universality lies: this delicate feeling is also found in Chinese culture when it crosses the national boundary, which exhibits the mystery of oriental traditional culture.

[1] Hiroshi Kitagawa & Bruce T. Tsuchida, The Tale of Heike (University of Tokyo Press, 1975), 14
[2] Kozo Yamamura, The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 3: Medieval Japan (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 451
[3] Peter McMillan, One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each: A Translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 77
[4] Translated by Basil Hall Chamerlain, The Kojiki: Records of Ancient Times (Japan: Tuttle Publishing, 1981), 139-140
[5] Richard Pilgrim & Robert Ellwood, Japanese Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1985)
[6] McMillan, One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each, 24
[7] McMillan, One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each, 102
[8] Robert E. Carter, The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation (State University of New York Press, 2008), 114