The cherry blossom (桜, sakura) is the national flower of Japan. It is probably most beloved flower among the Japanese. The blooming of cherry blossoms signifies not only the arrival of spring but the beginning of the new academic year for schools (Japanese school year starts in April) and of the new fiscal year for businesses. The cherry blossoms are symbols of a bright future. Also, their delicacy suggests purity, transience, melancholy and has poetic appeal.
During this period, the weather forecasts include reports on the advance of sakura zensen (桜前線, sakura front) as the blossoms sweep north. As the trees begin to bloom, the Japanese participate in hanami (花見, flower viewing). People gather under the trees, eat picnic lunches, drink sake, view the cherry blossom flowers and have a great time. In cities, viewing cherry blossoms in the evening (夜桜, yozakura) is also popular. Against the dark sky, the cherry blossoms in full bloom are especially beautiful.
However, there is also a dark side. The Japanese cherry blossoms open all at once and seldom last more than a week. From the way they quickly and gracefully fall, they were used by militarism to beautify the death of the suicide units. To samurai in the ancient times or soldiers during World Wars there was no greater glory than dying on the battlefield like scattered cherry blossoms.
Sakura-yu is a tea-like drink made by steeping a salt-preserved cherry blossom in hot water. It is often served at wedding and other auspicious occasions. Sakura-mochi is a dumpling containing sweet bean paste wrapped in a salt-preserved cherry-tree leaf.
A sakura also means a shill who raves about his mock purchase. Originally referring to people who were admitted to watch plays for free. The word came about because cherry blossoms are free for viewing.
The cherry blossom is synonymous with the word "flower (花, hana)". Hana yori dango (花より団子, dumplings over flowers) is a proverb that expresses the practical is preferred over the aesthetic. In hanami, people often seem to be more interested in eating foods or drinking alcohol than appreciating the beauty of the flowers. Click here to learn more expressions including flowers.
Click here to learn the kanji character for "cherry blossom".