Widely celebrated in Japanese literature, poetry, and art, sakura carry layered meanings. For example, because they bloom briefly, the blossoms are often seen as a metaphor for the ephemeral beauty of living. At the same time, the joyful tradition of hanami (flower viewing) is an old and ongoing tradition. The practice was first associated with plum blossoms before becoming almost exclusively linked with cherry blossoms by the Heian Period (794–1185). With wider exposure to Japanese art and culture in the nineteenth century, audiences in the U.S. and around the world embraced sakura as a particularly Japanese cultural hallmark.

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Hanami: Blossom Viewing Party

Kitao Shigemasa’s eighteenth-century hanami (flower viewing) party scene shows three women and a man at Asukayama Park—opened by Japanese Shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751), who had its famous cherry trees planted there in 1720. Comfortably arranged on a ground cover inside a partial enclosure, they are likely enjoying warmed sake. Such parties continue to be a thriving Japanese pastime—replete with traditional sake and picnic blankets laid out hours in advance at the best sakura viewing spots. Above the image is a haiku poem describing both arboreal and human “blossoms”:

Murekitaru / Hana mata hana no / Asukayama
All flocked together / Blossoms upon blossoms / Asuka Hill

Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820). Yayoi or Sangatsu, Asukayama Hanami (Third Lunar Month, Blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill), from the series Jūnikagetsu (Twelve Months), between 1772 and 1776. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

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Celestial View of the Hasedera Temple

Edo Period (1600–1868) woodblock prints of famous places, called meisho-e, often contained seasonal indicators including an array of flowers and trees associated with particular times of year. Seen below clouds and cloud-like profusions of springtime sakura blossoms, this view by Hiroshige II (pupil and adopted son of the celebrated Andō Hiroshige) depicts the Hasedera (Hase Temple), one of the most renowned pilgrimage sites in Japan mentioned in literary works going back to the Heian Period (794–1185). The temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon, often referred to as the “Goddess of Mercy.”

Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826–1869). Yamato Hasedera (Hasedera in Yamato Province) from the series Shokoku Meisho Hyakkei (One-Hundred Famous Views of Japan), 1859. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

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Distant View of Mount Fuiji

Edo period (1600–1868) woodblock prints of famous places, called meisho-e, often contained seasonal indicators including an array of flowers and trees associated with particular times of year. This example from Hiroshige’s iconic Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji shows the majestic peak from Mount Kanō with Edo Bay between them. Fuji is placed at the center distance while a towering pine tree dominates the scene above a torii gate, blossoming cherry trees, and people ascending a winding mountain path.

Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858). Kazusa Kanōzan (Mount Kanō in Kazusa Province), from the series Fuji Sanjūrokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji), 1858. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00)

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Elegant Beauties

Seasonal themes were popular with ukiyo-e (literally “pictures of the floating world”) artists of the Edo Period (1600–1868) whose images often reflected the life of the theater and pleasure districts in the city of Edo, now Tokyo. The tall, slender beauties in Torii Kiyonaga’s image echo its elongated format. Such images, called hashira-e (pillar pictures) were ideal for display on pillars in architectural spaces.

Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815). Ōka no Nibijin (Two Beauties Under a Cherry Tree), 1782 or 1783. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

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Springtime in Edo

Seasonal themes were popular with ukiyo-e (literally “pictures of the floating world”) artists of the Edo Period (1600–1868), whose images often reflected the life of the pleasure quarters in Edo, now Tokyo. With her ornamented hairstyle and obi tied in front, the gorgeously-attired woman on the left in this image is recognizable as an oiran or high-ranking courtesan. Close behind her stands a young attendant called a kamuro. The woman on the right, also a courtesan, faces the oiran while kneeling with both hands on the red carpet in a gesture of respect to her senior.

Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815). Hanami-zuki (Cherry Blossom Viewing Month), from the series Shin-Yoshiwara jukkei (Ten Views of Shin-Yoshiwara), between 1785 and 1789. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00)

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Imperial Palace in Kyoto

The “capital” in this book’s title refers to Kyoto, the home of Japan’s emperors before the capital city and imperial residence moved to Edo (now Tokyo) after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. One of two volumes, it was acquired by the Library as part of a large 1905 gift from Washington Evening Star editor-in-chief Crosby Stuart Noyes, who hoped his collection would give insight into Japanese history and culture through its art. Artist Suzuki Shōnen was known for his landscape views.

Suzuki Shōnen (1849–1918). “Gosho,” Miyako meisho gafu, kokon shomeika zuga (“Imperial Palace,” from Album of Famous Places in the Capital, from the Past and Present, a Collection of Famous Artists’ Paintings), ca. 1894. Color woodblock book. Japanese Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00)

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Gion Weeping Cherry

The “capital” in this book’s title refers to Kyoto, the home of Japan’s emperors before the capital city and imperial residence moved to Edo (now Tokyo) after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. One of two volumes, it was acquired by the Library as part of a large 1905 gift from Washington Evening Star editor-in-chief Crosby Stuart Noyes, who hoped his collection would give insight into Japanese history and culture through its art. Artist Yamada Shōkei studied under Suzuki Shōnen and helped found the Japan Art Society. The weeping cherry tree depicted here still stands in Maruyama Park, in the Gion district of Kyoto.

Yamada Shōkei (b. 1866, fl. 1890s). “Gion shidare-zakura,” Miyako meisho gafu, kokon shomeika zuga (“Gion Weeping Cherry,” from Album of Famous Places in the Capital from the Past and Present, a Collection of Famous Artists’ Paintings), ca. 1894. Color woodblock book. Japanese Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (023.01.00)

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Plum Blossoms in Early Spring

Hiroshige’s window-framed view is punctuated by a flowering branch of budding ume (plum blossoms). Ume, the first important flower to blossom in the spring, have strong connections to the Asian continent, especially in Chinese poetry and painting, in which they are often portrayed together with the melodious uguisu or bush warbler. Its blossoms were a popular inspiration for springtime flower appreciation including hanami (flower viewing) parties in early Japanese culture before the primary focus moved to sakura blossoms. The perspective taken in this image is probably from the second-story window of one of the several tofu restaurants at the Massaki Inari Shrine, looking across the Sumida River.

Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858). Massaki atari yori Suijin no mori Uchikawa Sekiya no sato o miru zu (View from Massaki of the Suijin Shrine Woods, Uchikawa Inlet, and Sekiya), from the series Meisho edo hyakkei (One-Hundred Famous Views of Edo), 1857, Color woodblock print in accordion album. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00)

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Temple Gardens

Hiroshige’s view near Ueno Hill features two graceful weeping cherry trees in the foreground. The specific site shown has been identified as Shūsō-in, one of three Buddhist temple gardens collectively known as Hanamidera or Flower-Viewing Temples as well as Jiin Rinsen or Temple Gardens. This album includes fifty woodblock prints from Hiroshige’s spectacular assemblage of famous views of Edo (now Tokyo).

Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858). Higurashi no sato jiin no rinsen (Temple Gardens, Nippori), from the series: Meisho edo hyakkei (One-hundred Famous Views of Edo), 1857. Color woodblock print in accordion album. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (031.00.01)

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Humorous Redition of Hanami Party

Utagawa Hirokage was a pupil of renowned painter and printmaker Andō Hiroshige. The latter’s popular and comparatively stately presentations of like subject matter provide a comic spark for this envisioning of flower-viewing at Asukayama. Strolling revelers in the middle distance include musicians and samurai who wear blue haori jackets with loose hakama trousers. In the immediate foreground, a party of women and men reacts as a blind man inadvertently wreaks havoc on their hanami (flower viewing) picnic.

Utagawa Hirokage (fl. 1851–1866). Asukayama no hanami (Flower Viewing at Asuka Hill) in Edo Meisho Dōkezukush (Comical Collection of Famous Places in Edo), 1859. Color woodblock album. Japanese Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (045.00.00)

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Sakura by the Sumida River

Andō Hiroshige’s hanami (flower viewing) scene along the Sumida River is full of lively action, including a man dancing near a musician strumming the shamisen, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument. To the right another man leans forward to offer sake from a gourd container to a woman who reaches back toward him. Images of the Sumida River, still a famous destination for blossom viewing in Tokyo, were a recurring theme in Edo Period (1600–1868) prints.

Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858). Sumida tsutsumi hanami no zu (Viewing cherry blossoms along the Sumida River), from the series Tōto meisho (Famous views in the Eastern Capital), between 1848 and 1854. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00)

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Actors' Hanami Party

This example of a Kamigata print (called Kamigata-e for the region including the cities of Osaka and Kyoto) depicts a group of actors who are distracted from viewing sakura blossoms by a small frog. It was conceived as the second of four sheets in a multi-panel work—a full impression of which is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection (external link). The actors shown here have been identified as Fujikawa Tomokichi II (a.k.a. Fujikawa Kayū II), Kataoka Nizaemon VII, Arashi Danpachi I, and Kataoka Korokurō I.

Shunkōsai Hokushū (fl. 1810–1832). Yakusha no hanami (Actors Viewing Cherry Blossoms), ca. 1819. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00)

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Hinamatsuri—Springtime Girls’ Day Festival

The small landscape depicted celebrates Mukōjima—situated on the east bank of the Sumida River. This is still a famous destination for viewing the cherry blossom trees that were first planted there by Shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751). The fashionable young girl in the foreground is holding what is likely an emperor doll associated with Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) or Girls' Day Festival, held on March third to celebrate and offer good wishes for girls’ health and happiness. Odake Kunikazu was a student of Utagawa Kunimasa and the oldest of three artist brothers. Prints of this type, called kuchi-e, translated as “mouth pictures,” were made as frontispiece illustrations for novels and literary journals. They were especially popular during the Meiji era (1868–1912).

Odake Kunikazu (1868–1931). Mukōjima shunkei (Spring Scene at Mukōjima), from the series Tokyo jūnikagetsu no uchi sangatsu (The Twelve Months of Tokyo, March),1901. Color woodblock print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (032.00.00)

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Sakura Textbook

A decorative cherry blossom motif appears on the cover of this Japanese textbook. The book was used to export knowledge related to Japanese sakura to Japan-occupied countries. It describes the meaning, history, and importance of sakura, highlighting famous locations for cherry trees and poems associated with those places.

Nihongo Kyōiku Shinkōkai (Society for the Promotion of the Japanese Language). Sakura from the series Nihon Bunka Tokuhon (Primer on Japanese Culture). Tokyo, Japan: Nihongo Kyōiku Shinkokai, 1942. Japanese Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)

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Speed Embodied

Satomi’s 1937 poster for Japanese Government Railways celebrates speed and modernity with an Art Deco style. A design masterpiece, the image uses radiating diagonal lines and shimmers of luminous color to suggest a sense of speeding past the landscape. One of the image’s focal points is the single cherry tree that appears to toss in the wake of a train. The tree joins forces with a nearby Japanese flag as unmistakable visual representations of Japan. The Osaka-born artist studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Munetsugu Satomi (1900–1995). Japan: Japanese Government Railways. Color lithographic poster. Osaka, Japan: H. B. Process Seihan Printing Co., 1937. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Japonisme: West

After Japan expanded several ports to trade and commerce by Western powers in the 1850s, Western appreciation of Japanese art quickly followed. In 1872, French collector and printmaker Philippe Burty coined the term Japonisme, which came to describe the work of Western artists influenced by Japanese aesthetics and subject matter. Notable American practitioners included Helen Hyde, who studied woodblock carving in Tokyo and made her residence there from 1899 to 1914.

Helen Hyde (1868–1919). Blossom Time in Tokyo, 1914. Color woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (038.00.00)

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Japonisme: Western Appreciation and Appropriation

After Japan expanded several ports to trade and commerce by Western powers in the 1850s, Western appreciation of Japanese art quickly followed. In 1872, French collector and printmaker Philippe Burty coined the term Japonisme, which came to describe the work of Western artists influenced by Japanese aesthetics and subject matter. Notable American practitioners included Bertha Lum, who studied in Tokyo with master block cutter Bonkotsu Igami (1875–1933) during an extended visit to Japan in 1907.

Bertha Lum (1869–1954). Cherry Blossoms, 1912. Color woodcut, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (038.01.00)

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