Lessons From Japan: Blink And It's Gone
Cherry Blossom – a reminder of the brilliance, fragility, and transience of life – and of finding the meaning within. Photo by Sonia Jackson, taken two days apart, her backyard, Tokyo, Japan.
Nowhere in the world are the elusive cherry blossom flowers more cherished than in Japan, home to thousands of cherry trees. Japan’s national and cultural icon is revered around the world, not just for its explosion of pink beauty, but also for the enduring expression of life and death and renewal. The floral imagery has permeated every aspect of Japan from film to poetry to art. Nothing is more of a reminder of the brilliance, fragility and transience of life than sakura – the Japanese word for cherry blossom. Sakura forecasts are posted months in advance and followers move from the southern islands of Okinawa to the north of Hokkaido to witness the fleeting bloom – remarkably brief, dropping to the ground and withering after only a week, falling like snow falls with the ebb and flow of the wind.
Shinto-ism, commonly defined as Japan’s indigenous religion is as old as Japan itself. In Shinto-ism sakura are thought to house kami (sacred spirits forces) where the ephemeral nature of cherry blossoms mirror the great importance of transience in the Buddhist doctrine. For the Samurai and their strict moral code of respect, discipline and honour it was their duty to exemplify and preserve these virtues in life, and to appreciate but not fear the inevitability of death. A fallen cherry blossom petal symbolized the end of their short lives. During World War II, cherry blossoms took on a similar meaning for Japanese pilots who painted their kamikaze warplanes with sakura before embarking on suicide missions to “die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor”.
Synonymous with spring and the start of a new Japanese fiscal year, the sakura are a timeless metaphor of our very existence: of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present. A time of change and reflection. The blooming is magical, powerful and all-encompassing but incredible short-lived – a reminder of the parallels with our own lives: all-consuming and far too fleeting. Sakura are an inevitable reminder to continuously look at the magic surrounding us and make the most of a life that can end at any moment. To celebrate family, friends, new tastes, the touch of a child’s hand, the wind in our hair. To celebrate the start of a new school year or a new job – importantly to make a dream reality.
In normal times hanami – picnics under the blossom – are held throughout Japan with reveling going right through the night. But this year is different and the parks are cordoned off. Given the absence of opportunity to party, the moment has been more profound and reflective – a time to walk under the bloom by day, or to witness the illumination of the flowers under temples and lining river beds by night.
What is it we want to do with life? How do we find that meaning? “I haven’t felt this alive in two years’ said a senior client in a leading multi-national on her second session with me. This comment alone brought me to life, a powerful reminder of the change that can be brought out from within. To find one’s true north.
Sakura have always signaled the beginning of something new.
When cherry blossom is in full bloom, the future is bursting with possibilities.
Sonia Jackson is a sought-after executive coach, entrepreneur and writer leveraging her senior corporate experience at National Geographic, News Corporation and Unilever in Europe, Asia and Latin America to help businesswomen reach their fullest potential. She is a Board Member of the Royal Geographical Society Asia and the Shibuya International Rugby Club Japan, an Advisor to the Board at the British School of Tokyo, Japan and a Team GB Olympic Ambassador. Sonia is a Senior Professional Career Coach through the International Association of Career Coaches.