Image: Cherry blossoms in 2010
Toru Yamanaka  /  AFP - Getty Images file
A young couple admires the cherry blossom in full-bloom at a park in Tokyo in April 2010. In the coming days, cherry trees will blossom in the quake-ravaged nation.
By
updated 3/26/2011 2:55:52 PM ET 2011-03-26T18:55:52

The cherry trees will soon blossom in Japan.

For the Japanese, it will be a particularly poignant sight. Even in normal times, the flowers are a cause for rejoicing tinged with sadness, because they fall at the moment of their greatest beauty. They are the embodiment of a notion that is central to Japanese culture — "hakanasa," a hard-to-translate word that conveys the fragility, or evanescence, of life.

For Japan, this sense of transience is also a source of strength.

In this time of national grieving, the cherry blossoms will bring home the awareness of hakanasa with a strange kind of force — one that doesn't strike but sinks into the soul like heat from a hot spring or fire from a sake bottle, bringing sorrow and solace in equal measure. The fragility of technologically-advanced Japan was exposed in the most terrifying way in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast, leaving more than 10,000 people dead, some 17,500 missing and about a half-million homeless, and spawning a nuclear disaster.

Hiroyuki Yoneta, a monger at Tokyo's bustling Tsukiji fish market, reflected on life's frailty as he took a break from loading crab and shrimp onto his rickety stall a couple hours before his 4 a.m. opening time.

"Thinking about how these people living normal lives suddenly disappeared, you can't escape the feeling that humans, like the flowers, are transient things," Yoneta said.

But consider this Japanese paradox: the delicate cherry blossom was also the symbol of the samurai, the epitome of Japanese valor.

The warrior class liked the flowers because they didn't cling to life, but rather showed up for the briefest spell, and fell at the peak of their splendor. In this way, they embodied the spirit of "bushido" — the way of the warrior that combines stoicism, bravery, and self-sacrifice.

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These days, people invoke bushido less often than the common man's down-to-earth version — "gaman." It means gritting your teeth and just getting on with life. When people refer to Japan's salarymen as modern-day samurai, it's taken not so much in a swashbuckling sense but for the way these men in suits endure crushing, monotonous toil, and display unwavering loyalty to a common cause.

Moving on and starting over
And amid death, people of all stripes here are plowing ahead with life, in an orderly and cooperative way. Many are already starting to return to the sites of their devastated homes, and thinking cool-headedly about how to start over amid Japan's biggest catastrophe since World War II.

Scenes of gaman abound: the homeless family sitting around a makeshift fire as snow falls at night, their stoic faces lit up by orange flames. The old man walking his bicycle through an ankle-high lake of mud, his son's wedding picture in the basket. Drivers waiting patiently in line for hours for scarce gasoline in quake-ravaged areas.

Image: Quake rubble
Shuji Kajiyama  /  AP
Qa wedding photo lies in the rubble in the devastated area in Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture.

And so do stories of self-sacrifice.

Kennichi Takeuchi, 81, and his wife Yukiko, 78, have been living in their tiny black Mitsubishi car since the quake, amid snow and a biting wind — even though they're just outside a community center packed with refugees.

Yukiko has a bad leg and can't sleep on the hard wood floor inside. Kennichi, who's been married to Yukiko for 56 years, isn't about to seek the comfort of the center.

"We pass the time here in the car," said Yukiko, her dog Meg sitting on her lap. "It's not so bad."

The notions of hakanasa and gaman may also have roots in Japan's traditional awareness of humankind's powerlessness in the face of almighty nature. It's a lesson Japan may have started to forget as it put nuclear reactors on shores near faultlines, reclaimed land from Tokyo Bay to build airport extensions, and sent ever-higher buildings into the sky.

But this relationship with nature — a paradox of being at one with it while still in constant antagonism — remains deeply embedded in the Japanese mind.

Part of it has to do with the fact that Japan is so prone to natural disasters: Killer quakes and tsunamis have struck time and again in Japanese history. And time and again, the nation has rebuilt.

Anyone who has visited the ancient capital of Kyoto will know that Japan was for most of its history a culture of wooden buildings rather than brick-and-mortar. This tradition of wood brings the Japanese closer to nature — and, because wooden homes can be destroyed so easily, also makes them acutely aware of nature's force.

"The transience (hakanasa) of human life and the transience of buildings are both caught in mutability's immeasurable vortex of sadness," the novelist Keiichiro Hirano wrote in an essay titled "On Mutability."

This year, that sadness will be driven home by the fact so many thousands will never see another "hanami" season — as cherry blossom viewing is known here.

And there may be comfort because amid horror, there are fleeting scenes of beauty: the hug of reunited family members. The smile of a relief worker handing out a blanket. And soon — even amid the rubble — clouds of petals drifting to the ground where homes once stood and laughter once rang out.

'Cherry blossoms and a change of heart'
Haruhiko Fukuda, a squat man with a shaved head and gentle eyes who runs a century-old dumpling shop a few steps from fishmonger Yoneta's stall, sees hope.

"After the cold (season) ... you have the cherry blossoms and a change of heart," Fukuda said. "I hope that will help spur our rebuilding. Step by step, fixing something that's broken is a huge task, and as a first step we need some inspirations to rebuild."

In the days to come the flowers will bloom in the south, appear soon afterward in Tokyo, and drift toward the ravaged north in April — poet T.S. Eliot's "cruelest month" — in a wave of whitish-pink that may reach its peak just as this nation's people emerge from collective shell-shock and a deeper pain, if that's possible, sinks in.

This story was written on the Vernal Equinox, a tradition-steeped public holiday in Japan that signals spring — and cherry blossom season — are around the corner. It's also a day for paying respect at the graves of loved ones — a reminder that for thousands in northeastern Japan, there will likely never be a tombstone at which to pray.

Spring everywhere carries the promise of renewal, yet in Japan the cherry blossoms are also a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. The acceptance of this paradox may bring out a particularly Japanese strength -- a stoicism that will be called upon repeatedly as the nation confronts its tragedy.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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