Japan’s Lonely Cherry Blossoms
The Yomiuri Shimbun

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Cherry blossoms (sakura) are in full bloom, but few people are seen at a park in Kitakyusyu City, Fukuoka Prefecture on April 7, 2020, amid an outbreak of the new coronavirus COVID-19. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaimed a state of emergency to Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka for about one month on the same day, and asked for refraining from going out to the extent possible. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, globally widespread on March 11th. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

Japan’s Lonely Cherry Blossoms
The Yomiuri Shimbun

In spring, when the cherry blossoms start to open on Japan’s island chain, tourists begin arriving and locals start planning their visits. Sakura season is an important cultural tradition. People plan spring vacations around it. Entire websites are devoted to tracking the blooms across Japan’s five islands, and predicting exactly when the first blooms will begin. “Sakura means everything in Japan,” writes John Gapper in The Financial Times. It’s big business. In 20018, cherry blossoms generated $5.8 billion dollars in related revenue. Gapper writes about how the usual crowds didn’t show up this year. President Abe encouraged people to stay at home, and people didn’t want to risk infection. Popular sakura sites like Tokyo’s Ueno Park and Kinuta Park were colored with anxiety as much as a pink hue, and crowds were thin. Naturally, businesses that rely on the annual traffic suffered from crowds’ absence.

But nature sprung a surprise this year, with the coronavirus pandemic curbing the picnics and frustrating people who had looked forward throughout winter to the usual party. Nature also changed the season: after an unusually mild January, the famously co-ordinated somei-yoshinos started to bloom in Tokyo in mid-March, two weeks ahead of schedule. This allowed some celebrations before the coronavirus clampdown, but climate change is a worry.

As he points out, sakura’s symobolism was also fitting for a time of death and change:

Coronavirus intruded this year, but the shadow it cast is not entirely alien to the season. Sakura does not just mean love and renewal, but also evanescence and the fleeting nature of existence. “The Japanese are implanted with sakura as a symbol not only of the season but of ourselves,” says Mariko Bando, author and chancellor of Showa Women’s University in Tokyo. “The blossom is beautiful but it goes away. Our lives are not eternal.”

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