Cherry Blossom Art in Asia and Beyond

"Titmouse on a cherry blossom branch" by ukiyo-e master Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858).
"Titmouse on a cherry blossom branch" by ukiyo-e master Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). | Source

Welcome!

One of the most beautiful and recognizable springtime blossoms worldwide is the cherry blossom. The cherry blossom is a tree that only blossoms in the springtime, but its beauty leaves an impression that lasts a lifetime. It's this dazzling beauty that has earned the cherry blossom a place in art around the world!

From Europe to the US and especially in the country where the cherry blossom is most famous, Japan, the cherry blossom has become a favorite art subject around the world In many of these paintings, the cherry blossom is the main subject. In others, it is part of a backdrop that enhances the landscape of the painting. Many, if not most of these cherry blossom paintings have been inspired by classical Japanese cherry blossom paintings and ukiyo-e prints.

Are you a fan of cherry blossom art and paintings? Or are you just curious about why and how the cherry blossom is depicted in artwork? No matter what spikes your curiosity about cherry blossoms, please read on and learn more about this beautiful flower and its place in art!

NOTE: The author of this hub does NOT condone or glamorize the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces during World War II. All content in this hub is for informational and historical purposes only. No political sympathies are intended.

Cherry Blossom Trees Around the World

Cherry blossom trees originate from Japan, where they are known as sakura (桜; さくら). In the West, this tree is known as the Japanese cherry tree.

Japanese cherry trees have been exported all around the world and can be found in many prominent parks and gardens. A huge number of these trees have been donated by the Japanese government over the past century. Others have been donated by private Japanese donors.

Of course, many homes in the West and Japan have a Japanese cherry tree or two growing in the yard or garden!

Outside of Japan itself, two of the most famous cherry tree hotspots are in South Korea and Washington, DC.

Every spring, the South Koreans have their own cherry tree viewing traditions and the Japanese variety grows in abundance across the country. However, both the Japanese variety of the cherry tree and the tree-viewing tradition itself were imported to the country by the Japanese colonial authorities during the days of Japanese occupation in the early and mid 20th century. They have been viewed as a relic of that era by many Koreans. Some have even been symbolically chopped down as a way to remember and protest against that dark period of Korean history.

In the US, 3,020 cherry trees were famously donated by the Japanese government as a gift of friendship. Most of these trees were planted at what is now Sakura Park in Manhattan, and the rest were planted along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. The first two were planted by the first lady of the time Helen Taft and wife of the Japanese ambassador Viscountess Chinda. These trees still line the Tidal Basin today and are a major tourist attraction, especially during the National Cherry Blossom Festival held every year in late March and early April. Sakura Park has its own cherry blossom festival every year in April.

Painting by an unknown Chinese artist of a cherry blossom and sparrow.
Painting by an unknown Chinese artist of a cherry blossom and sparrow. | Source

Chinese Cherry Blossom Art

In China, the cherry blossom has a very different meaning than in Japan. To the Chinese the cherry blossom is a symbol of the female. That is, a symbol of feminine beauty, dominance, and sexuality. The cherry blossom is also a symbol of love and a cherry tree blossom is given as a gift of love.

Cherry blossoms are popular subjects for paintings such as bamboo scroll paintings, brush paintings, and feng shui art. These types of paintings have become enormously popular in the West and have remained popular in China for well over a thousand years!

Sadly enough, many of the Japanese cherry blossom trees in China were planted by occupying Japanese forces during the Second Sino-Japanese war of 1933-1945. These trees were intended to mark the territory where they were planted as part of Japan. These trees can be found in many parks and other areas across China today.


Ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) from his 1852 series "Tale of Genji".
Ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) from his 1852 series "Tale of Genji". | Source

The Meaning of Cherry Blossoms in Japan

The cherry blossom, or sakura, is without a doubt Japan's most famous flower. When the cherry trees blossom every spring, the Japanese people head out to view the blossoms. Cherry blossom-viewing parties have been a tradition in Japan for many years.

The cherry tree has very deep symbolism to the Japanese people. Every year, it blossoms at springtime, produces a beautiful bloom, and withers away. To the Japanese people, this is symbolic of the Buddhist nature of life. That is, life is transient. We're on this earth for a very short time to "bloom" and "wither away" very quickly.

Cherry trees are also associated with death in Japan. There is a traditional belief that when a person is buried underneath a cherry tree, the blossom petals turn from white to red.

Also, the cherry blossom has a traditional patriotic meaning. Traditionally, the shades of red on a petal represented the blood of a samurai, as well as the nature of sacrifice for a samurai. This symbolism recurred during World War II with the kamikaze pilots. During the war, the Japanese government tried to convince the public that the souls of the kamikaze pilots were reincarnated as cherry blossom petals. Also, many kamikaze pilots painted sakura branches with blossoms on the sides of their planes. These branches represented the "ferocity of life", and as "falling petals" who were giving their lives for the Emperor and for the country.

Many Japanese also practice the ancient tradition of Hanami (花見/"flower viewing"), or picknicking underneath the shade of a cherry blossom tree. This tradition dates back to at least the 8th century, or Nara era. It is a way to admire the beauty of the cherry blossoms, and to just kick back and relax with family and friends. Many parks in towns and cities across Japan have hanami festivals every year and the turnout is usually very high.

"Mount Fuji with cherry trees in bloom" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
"Mount Fuji with cherry trees in bloom" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). | Source

Japanese Cherry Blossom Art

It is for all the reasons above that cherry blossoms have been a mainstay of Japanese art, and the meaning behind the cherry blossom in Japanese artwork. Cherry blossoms can be found everywhere in Japan, from kimono motifs to anime and manga, pictures, posters, and more. Also, the association of the cherry blossom with the samurai and samurai culture helped it to explode in popularity throughout Japanese art over the centuries.

Cherry blossom art - or sakura art - often features scenes of people having hanami picnics or cherry blossom-viewing parties. Other paintings and prints just depict people out in the countryside enjoying the blossoms.

Many paintings and especially ukiyo-e prints, such as the one above by Utagawa Kunisada, depict scenes from Japanese literature and poetry. Cherry blossoms have been a common theme and subject of both since the very beginning of Japanese literature These scenes were depicted in many of the popular ukiyo-e series by artists of the Edo period, such as the above print by Utagawa Kunisada from his "Tale of Genji" series. Cherry blossom motifs can be found throughout "The Tale of Genji" and Kunisada captures the blossoms well in his print.

Other artwork are simply paintings of nature, everyday life in the midst of the magnificent blossoms, or of the blossoms themselves. These themes have been depicted in paintings, woodcuts, ceramics, lacquerware, and more for thosuands of years. Some of the Sumi-e ink brush paintings - particularly those made before the Edo period when the popularity of ukiyo-e took off - were influenced by Chinese art. These were often nature and landscape paintings.

The cherry blossom was also a popular subject of Zen paintings. Zen artists such as Tachibana Morikuni (1679-1748) drew the cherry blossom in a matter of seconds in their Zen paintings!

Of course, the cherry blossom was featured on the armor, katana (刀, or "samurai sword"), and other adornments and weaponry of the samurai. Many musha-e warrior prints and paintings depicted samurai admiring, lounging around, or romancing underneath cherry trees. These scenes appeared very frequently in Japanese literature as well.

"Blossom Time in Tokyo" by American artist Helen Hyde (1868-1919), 1914. This woodcut was done in the Japonisme style.
"Blossom Time in Tokyo" by American artist Helen Hyde (1868-1919), 1914. This woodcut was done in the Japonisme style. | Source

Cherry Blossom Paintings in the West

In the West, the Japanese cherry blossom made its way into artwork via the Japonisme movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries . After the dazzling Japanese ukiyo-e prints made their way to Europe and the US (quite often as wrapping paper for Japanese ceramics) during the 1860s, many prominent European and American artists were highly influenced by the works of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other Japanese ukiyo-e artists. These artists included Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Degas, Renoir, and many others.

The cherry blossom was depicted in a number of Japonisme-style paintings and ceramics. Among these were "Blossom Time in Tokyo" (right) by Helen Hyde and fellow American artist Bertha Lum's 1912 painting "Cherry Blossoms".

In recent decades, Japanese-style cherry blossoms have been painted frequently by Western artists who paint in the "neo-Japonisme" style, or are just inspired by Japanese artwork.

Of course cherry trees exist in the West and the Western varieties have been captured on canvas! These have frequently been painted in landscape paintings such as "Cherry Tree in Bloom" by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler and "Cherry Blossoms" by Russian painter Pyotr Konchalovsky.


A World War II-era Batik Java Hokokai piece in which cherry blossoms can clearly be seen.
A World War II-era Batik Java Hokokai piece in which cherry blossoms can clearly be seen. | Source

Batik Java Hokokai

Some of the most stunning designs of Indonesian batik were made during the Japanese occupation of World War II. In the midst of this occupation, there arose in central Java a batik style known as Batik Hokokai. This batik style often featured the cherry blossom very prominently.

This style was known as Java Hokokai batik and were done in a pagi/sore ("morning/night" in Indonesian) fashion. That is, two motifs were interspersed on one sheet of fabric due to the scarcity of fabrics such as cotton during the war. It got its name from the Java Hokokai organization, which was the organization set up by the Japanese for labor conscription, regulation of sporting events, and regulation of batik exhibits held across the country.

Hokokai batik patterns featured traditional Japanese symbols, such as chryanthemums, butterflies, lotuses, and cherry blossoms interspersed with the traditional vivid Javanese pesisir style. They also bore a good amount of Chinese and Dutch influence. These pieces were intricately made and some took up to a full year to create!

Batik Hokokai used very brilliant shades of colors, including pink, purple, turquoise, and yellow. Not only did this make the piece very unique and beautiful, but helped bring a little beauty to a war-torn and occupied nation.

After the Japanese defeat in World War II, Batik Hokokai vanished in popularity and gave way to new styles of batik in Indonesia which reflected the changing times. However, some artisans have tried their hand at reviving the style.

Cherry Blossoms in Japanese and Korean Media

Cherry blossoms figure heavily in Japanese and Korean anime due to its association with Asian landscapes. In both countries they have all the meanings above and more. They are shown falling on two lovers to make a springtime love scene more romantic. They are shown turning red after a body has been buried underneath a cherry blossom tree. Falling cherry blossom petals are shown in the air as high school and university students are about to graduate.

Cherry blossoms are very common in Shoujo, or female-oriented anime.

Cherry blossoms have been heavily used in other regional media, particularly manga, movies, TV shows, and webcomics. Many Korean dramas and historical movies from Japan, Korea, and China use falling cherry blossom petals for a romantic effect.

Cherry Blossom Tattoos

In the West, cherry blossom tattoos have soared in popularity. These tattoos are very popular among women. Most are inspired by the Japanese woodcut cherry blossoms, or the ones featured on Chinese scroll paintings.

Cherry blossom tattos have all the Chinese and Japanese meanings and symbolism above. For most people who get a tattoo, cherry blossom motifs are usually combined with other elements from Japanese or Eastern cultures, such as butterflies, waterfalls, birds, and so on.

For those who get a cherry blossom tattoo, it can be a great source of inspiration and carry a deeply personal meaning.

In Conclusion

The cherry blossom is a flower that is deeply symbolic in the East, and this symbolism has been slowly spreading West over the past century. It has inspired many an artist who has fallen in love with its beautiful spring colors, and has inspired various art forms across the world. There's no doubt it will keep on inspiring for many more centuries to come.

Thanks for your visit to this hub and since this is a work in progress, there will probably be more updates to come. Please come back and check in again soon!

More by this Author

  • Bamboo Paintings of East Asia
    10

    Bamboo has been a very popular subject in east Asian art for many centuries. It is one of the most recognizable motifs in east Asian paintings and one most people associate with east Asian art. "Bamboo Paintings of...

  • Japanese Wave Paintings
    8

    One of the most recognizable subjects in Japanese art are the giant waves that lap its shores. These waves have been famously depicted in Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa", which is widely regarded to be...

  • The Art of the Japanese Butterfly
    18

    The butterfly has many meanings in Japan. Beautiful yet mysterious, the Japanese butterfly has made appearances on clothing, in media, in family crests, and especially in art. "The Art of the Japanese...


Comments 8 comments

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

What an interesting Hub and such lovely selections of art. You obviously put much effort and love into this essay and it shows. Thank you. Sharing,


Angelo52 profile image

Angelo52 4 years ago from Central Florida

Very well written article. Everything blended together, the words and the photos. Enjoyed reading this article. Voted up and shared.


truefaith7 profile image

truefaith7 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you so much for the feedback and the share phdast7. Glad you enjoyed the hub! It is a very extensive hub, and a fairly extensive topic to boot. Hopefully I've made a hub that's not only informative and accurate, but that everyone will enjoy.


truefaith7 profile image

truefaith7 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you Angelo52! The feedback and the share are much appreciated!


KrisL profile image

KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

The detail about the batik was totally new to me . . fascinating.

It's also strange and sad how the history of these beautiful trees is tied up with Japanese imperialism of the last century. Now, thank goodness, the cherry tree can be a peaceful symbol again.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK

What a wonderfully informative hub. I was recently looking into oriental art and find the simplicity and elegance so inspiring. This hub is chock full of information and I like the way you have combined history, art , info are all woven together into a highly readable hub. Well done! Voted up and across!


truefaith7 profile image

truefaith7 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for the feedback KrisL. I wasn't aware of the Java Batik Hokokai style either until I started doing research for this hub. It's amazing how they managed to create that style in the midst of war and foreign occupation. You are absolutely right. It is sad how the Japanese government of the time used the cherry tree as a symbol of Japanese domination of Asia and of the kamikaze pilots. At least now it has become not only a symbol of peace, but an ambassador of goodwill around the world as well.


truefaith7 profile image

truefaith7 4 years ago from USA Author

Glad you found the hub informative Docmo! It's amazing how Eastern art can be so simple and elegant and yet say so much. Those are some of the qualities that have fascinated me about it over the years. Thanks so much for the feedback and take care!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working