Blossom amid the gloom for Japan

People in Japan have long celebrated the arrival of the cherry blossom with picnics under the trees and this year is no exception, as the BBC’s Roland Buerk reports.

However, he goes on to add that the worst economic crisis since World War II has taken the shine off the festivities.

The winter was long, cold, grey and wet, made grimmer by desperate news about the health of the world’s second biggest economy.

Little wonder people in Japan were ready to welcome the arrival of spring.

The first red buds appeared on the dark, almost black, cherry blossom trees in Tokyo around the beginning of March.

In the last few weeks they have burst into flower.

So thick have the blossoms been that the avenues of trees in the parks have looked like pink and white clouds. There are more along waterways.

Hemmed in by concrete, often used as a conveniently vacant bit of land to build a flyover expressway, Tokyo’s rivers are far from pretty in the winter.

But at this time of year they are transformed, with the laden branches dipping down towards the water.

Tokyo’s residents have been out in vast numbers to celebrate the new season.

This city has the largest population of any metropolitan area on the planet, and it seemed everyone wanted to see the blossom.

In Ueno Park, the crowds were so thick it was difficult to move along the pathways.

Amateur photographers were everywhere, taking close-ups of the blossoms on their camera phones, or snapping their friends posing under the trees.

The seasons are cherished in Japan.

Autumn foliage and rice planting are celebrated, but the cherry blossoms are especially welcome.

In centuries past, aristocrats would walk under the trees or sit to compose poetry.

Blossom appreciation is part of the Japanese cultural tradition of “mono no aware”, perhaps best translated as an awareness of the fleeting nature of beauty and a bittersweet sadness at its passing.

Nowadays as spring approaches, an item appears on television each night after the weather forecast: the latest news on the progress of the cherry blossom front, as it moves north up the archipelago with the warmer weather.

The first blossoms were spotted on the island of Okinawa, far to the south in the sub-tropics, in early January.

In Tokyo, officials from the Japan Meteorological Agency keep a close watch on the Yasukuni Shrine.

It is a controversial memorial to almost 2.5 million people who dedicated their lives to Imperial Japan, particularly those who fell in World War II. Convicted war criminals are among those symbolically enshrined there.

Soldiers were often compared to the beautiful but short-lived blossoms, and many vowed to meet their comrades in spirit at Yasukuni if they were killed.

Among its many cherry blossom trees, the shrine contains one particularly famous example protected by a fence.

When it has five or six blooms, the season in Tokyo is officially declared to have begun and several weeks of lavish cherry blossom picnics get under way.

As I strolled through the park, groups in suits and ties were sitting cross-legged tucking into sushi, rice, noodles and sweet dumplings, all washed down with sake and beer.

One group hailed me to join in a drinking game. To chants of encouragement, we took turns to down glasses of shochu, a powerful Japanese spirit.

The gatherings grew raucous into the night under the blossoms which were lit up with lanterns.

Reserving a place in the crowded parks for the annual office party is an important task and usually assigned to the most junior employees.

Many firms take on new recruits at this time of year.

After they are welcomed at large, elaborate ceremonies – complete with group renditions of the company song – they are sent off with blue plastic sheets to stake out a good spot.

From early in the morning, young men – and some women – in new suits were industriously laying out their sheets.

They taped together cardboard boxes to make low tables.

This year the cherry blossom season has come as Japan stumbles into its worst post-war economic crisis.

Major manufacturers are in trouble, exports have halved of the cars and electronic gadgets that have powered Japan’s rise to become an industrial and technological powerhouse.

Along with profits, the old certainties of the Japanese way are being eroded.

Fewer young people are being taken on by the big companies to start a job for life.

Some firms have even revoked offers they have made, despite a government policy of publicly naming and shaming them.

So as the young recruits settled in for a long wait for their colleagues to arrive for the evening festivities (some had brought sleeping bags as protection against the chilly wind of early spring) one of them reflected to me: “I’m lucky to have a job.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 18/04/2009

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