Cherry Blossoms in the Kojiki

I read an interesting article about cherry blossoms on the PBS site this morning.

The PBS article displayed the image above from the 712 Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki 古事記), and the writer claims that the text contains the “first known written reference of the cherry blossom.” Because the anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney appears to have provided much of the research for the article (the historian Constantine Vaporis contributed as well), I figured there must be something to this.

Where Are the Cherry Blossoms?

I have to admit, though, that I never noticed cherry blossoms standing out in the Kojiki, and so I was intrigued by this claim.

If you look in the Japanese text, you won’t find any cherry-blossoms (sakura no hana 桜の花) mentioned explicitly. However, there are a few cherry trees (look for the old version of sakura, written as 櫻) and lots of “flowers” (hana 花), a character which is often understood to mean “cherry-blossom.”

The Kojiki is definitely not a text that easily yields up its meaning in the original Japanese, and it helps to have an English translation near at hand. Basil Hall Chamberlain’s translation has three instances of “cherry” in the translator’s introduction, but no cherry blossoms:

  • "Wild cherry [or birch?], (hahaka 朱桜) (p. xxxix)
  • "Winter-cherry [Physalis alkekengi], (aka-kagachi written phonetically, and also hohodzuki 酸醤 (p. xxxix)
  • Catalpa Kaempferi [but some say the cherry is meant], (adzusa 梓) (p. xxxix)

In the main text, you’ll also find cherries mentioned, but no cherry blossoms:

  • cherry-bark (p. 67)
  • winter-cherry (pp. 73–74)
  • Sakurawi, which is explained in a footnote as “cherry-well,” a place in Kahachi (p. 294)
  • Waka-sakura, or “young cherry-tree” (p. 347)
  • adzusa, which the translator says some scholars have interpreted as “cherry-tree” (pp. 365–366)

For “cherry blossoms,” you’ll have to go to the footnotes:

  • Princess-“Blossoming-Brilliantly-Like-the-Flowers-of-the-Trees” (Ko-no-hana-saku-ya-hime 木花開耶姫), the flower here is interpreted as a cherry blossom in the translator’s footnote (p. 138)
  • cherry blossoms mentioned in the translator’s footnote on page 165 in order to explain what the Yoshino area in Japan became famous for, but the term itself is not in the text.

Based on the footnote from page 138, in which the translator interpreted “flower” in the name of one princess to mean cherry blossom, I am guessing that the PBS article was referring to Princess-“Blossoming-Brilliantly-Like-the-Flowers-of-the-Trees” (Ko-no-hana-saku-ya-hime 木花開耶姫) and her sister, “Princess-Falling-Like-the-Flowers-of-the-Trees” (Ko-no-hana-chiru-hime 木花知流比売)(p. 79). These references are surprisingly obscure, and I didn’t expect to find that cherry blossoms only occur in the names of these two sisters.

I’m glad that PBS didn’t just write about cherry blossoms in their most recent cultural incarnation as a symbol of hope after the March 11, 2011 tsunami in Japan, but took the time to look at their place in Japanese history as well. It was a real pleasure to see a historical source from premodern Japan mentioned in an English-language news article. It also gave me an excuse to go back and look at the Kojiki.

Where to Read about Cherry Blossoms in Japanese Culture

The PBS article mentions the documentary “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” and Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. She also published another book on the subject of the Kamikaze with her 2006 Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers.

Cherry blossoms aren’t all about nationalistic and military themes, though. For some of the Japanese literature that draws on images of cherry blossoms (hana or sakura), see Helen Craig McCullough’s Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology or Steven Carter’s Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology.