My thoughts on Sakurasou

Tomoshige Hirota

The garderners of the Edo period particularly liked the beauty and the form of Sakurasou, and it is one of the aspects of the Edo culture that still survives.

Western Europeans tend to favour loud, bright flowers, but the subtlety and understatedness of Sakurasou appeal to the Japanese, and thus these qualities have been preserved to this day.

Although it can be said that much of today’s Japanese culture comes from the Edo period, when thinking about gardening of the Edo period, it is actually necessary to think about the culture of the Muromachi period, which came before.

The Japanese love of gardening originates with the Kyoto aristocracy of the latter half of this Muromachi period.  Japan was a very wealthy country at that time – in terms of flora and fauna as well as monetarily, thanks to large amounts of silver discovered then.

The stable, peaceful Edo period inherited this gardening tradition, and its gardens blossomed into arguably the world’s finest.  These gardens were made up of flowers from the wild that were chosen for their beauty.

In the Edo period, ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ were very much the same, with forests and rivers common.  Even the large cities like Edo, the largest in the world at the time, lived in harmony with nature.  Perhaps this harks back to the days of the hunter-gatherers, whose lifestyle depended on living with nature.  They lived at one with nature, as a part of nature, rather than anything special.  Their attitudes also gave rise to the large numbers of Gods that are associated with nature. 

At the time there was a huge respect for nature; for nature’s power and for nature’s blessings.  There was also respect for nature’s immense diversity.  Humans and Nature lived together in a microcosm of harmony.

The west, on the other hand, was not blessed with the same diversity of nature, due to the remaining influence of the last ice age.  However, as the west became economically successful, it embarked on the ‘Age of Geographical Discovery’, whereby various collections of world plants were started, and the foundations for modern gardening were laid.

There was a big difference in basic attitudes towards nature between the Japanese and the Western way at that time.  The Japanese way of thinking was that humans were a part of nature.  Westerners believed that humans were special, and were above other animals and plants.  Hence westerners created large collections of world plants and, mainly later on, created large numbers of new plants as part of trying to ‘control nature’.

Of these two ways of thinking, no-one can say one is ‘better’ than the other.  However, nowadays the Western way is more mainstream than its Eastern counterpart.

Now, in the 21st century, we are living comfortable lives thanks to western science.  However, we are taking a tremendous toll on nature, to the extent that if we carry on like this we will damage the environment irreparably.

Global warming caused by Carbon Dioxide, the destruction of the rainforests, acid rain, food shortages, pollution caused by dioxins and radioactive materials, the list of problems goes on and on.  I myself am worried that the western way of ‘controlling’ nature will be unable to solve these problems.  We need some fresh thinking if we are to make any progress.

If we are to stop the destruction of nature and protect the world we need to find a way of understanding nature better.

The second half of the 20th century was a turbulent time in world history too, and problems between East and West, as well as North and South abounded.  When we have entered the 21st century, I did think that it would be nice if these problems ended.  However, with terrorism, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the North Korea problem, it looks like the difficult times will continue.  In Japan too, because of the continuing economic crisis, life is not easy.

The flowers that I grow belong to a completely different world – a peaceful world, one without suffering or strife – and I would like to feel that they can help heal peoples’ hearts.

While I have been studying the techniques of the gardeners of the Edo period, I cannot help feeling that it would be nice to return to those days of peace and harmony.  Of course, that is impossible, but we can learn a great deal from them, and their ways are as relevant now as they ever were.

August 2003