Friday 7 April 2017

Sakura Cherry Blossoms and Global Warming

The official Someiyoshino cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine with the explanatory signboard inset
The official sample cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo
On Sunday (April 2nd) came the official announcement that Someiyoshino (the most popular variety of cherry blossom - white with a tinge of pink) were in full bloom in Tokyo, 12 days after they began flowering. In Japan, sakura - the generic name for cherry tree - are observed with scientific precision and the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) publishes detailed maps and forecasts that allow people to track the sakura zensen (cherry blossom front) as it moves north. The picture on the left shows the sample specimen tree (hyōhonboku) located at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which is used by the JMA as the basis for their announcements. There are 96 such designated trees throughout the nation. People keep a close watch on this information when planning their "cherry blossom viewing" (hanami =花見) parties. But despite the image of sakura as being deeply symbolic for the Japanese, people attending hanami parties are usually more interested in eating and drinking than admiring the blossoms. This is captured in the phrase hana yori dango - literally "(sweet) dumplings over flowers," carrying the general meaning that practical things are more important than aesthetics!

People enjoying "Hanami" Parties at Yasukuni Shrine (2nd from left) and Boating at Chidorigafuchi (3rd from left), both prime-viewing spots for cherry blossoms in Tokyo. Note the five petals each with a distinctive "nick" at the top of the petal
Incredibly, cherry blossom data is available as far back as the 9th century for Kyoto - reflecting the fact that hanami has long been a popular cultural past-time for the Japanese. While the average peak bloom has consistently been between April 10th and 20th since the 1800s, recent years have seen a dramatic drop. In the past few years especially, the flowering (kaika =開花) and full bloom (mankai=満開) dates have become noticeably earlier, thought to be a sympton of global warming. For example, in the 1960s, flowering typically began at the start of April in Tokyo, and thus the blooms were closely associated with school and university entrance ceremonies. Now, the opening of the buds occurs during graduation ceremonies which are held near the end of March (mankai was March 22nd in Tokyo in 2021). Moreover, the gap between kaika and mankai has also grown longer since (somewhat non-intuitively) the period between flowering and reaching full bloom is longer in hotter climes (such as Kyushu) than colder ones (such as Hokkaido).