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There is a flower that opens for only a handful of days each year. Blooming in the hundreds, they gently unfold, reaching their peak as tiny, delicately-colored blossoms. Shortly after, they die, detaching from their stems and billowing out into the wind in beautiful clouds of petals that clothe the ground in white and pale pink.

These are the flowers of the cherry blossom tree. And for many, these flowers are a matter of life and death.

The symbolism of the cherry blossom began in Japan, where they are known as sakura. Images of these blossoms pervade Japanese imagery, appearing in everything from film to paintings to poetry and literature.

The samurai of feudal Japan lived by a strict moral code of honor not only in life, but in death as well—it was their duty to simultaneously realize the inevitably to death, and release any fear of it. Their lives, marked by battle and conflict, were often cut short, and the fallen cherry blossom became the symbol of that short life.

During World War II, the cherry blossom became similarly associated with Japanese kamikaze pilots, who decorated their fighter aircraft with images of the flower before going on their suicide missions, dying “like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor,” as Japanese soldiers were once told during the Meiji period.

Today, the cherry blossom is no longer used for military purposes, and has, instead, become part of a philosophical tradition that has spread out from Japan and now appears in many different countries.

In Japan, on April of each year, families gather under flowering cherry blossom trees in a long-standing tradition called hanami. In this ceremony, also known as the cherry blossom festival, the Japanese enjoy food, songs, drink, and fellowship, appreciating the ephemeral beauty of these flowers.

Beginning during the day and sometimes lasting into the night, this ceremony is about appreciating the transitory beauty of nature. Within the brief life of these small flowers is something of the everlasting cycle of life, death, and rebirth that has been celebrated in numerous cultures in many different ways.

But the true essence of the cherry blossom lies within a decidedly bittersweet idea. When these blossoms come into being each year, their short life reminds celebrants of the overwhelming beauty, yet tragic brevity, of life, itself. For many around the world, the cherry blossom tree is a reminder of how precious their lives really are.

This idea is tied to Buddhist theme of mindfulness—the practiced ability to live in the present. The life cycle of these flowers make us question why we fail to live life to the fullest, why we don’t spend time with our loved ones, and why we do not take the time to simply pay attention to the living, breathing world around us. Cherry blossom festivals are a time to regain our perspective on life, and to make a promise not to take the good things in our lives for granted.

In 1912, Japan gave three thousand cherry trees to Washington D.C., bringing this precious cultural symbol to American soil in an effort to represent friendship, goodwill, and political alliance. These trees were planted in West Potomac Park by the American First Lady, Helen Terron Taft, and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador. There, these two trees still stand, marked by a plaque.

Today, the Washington D.C. National Cherry Blossom Festival is a beloved event in which thousands come to watch these cherry trees blossom into a sea of pink and white in a three-week long cultural festival held throughout the city. The National Park Service oversees the prediction of the peak bloom season by examining the trees and climate conditions, revising their forecast right up until the day of the bloom so that celebrants can arrive at just the right time in order to behold the blooms.

But even amidst American festivities, the cherry blossom has come into its own bittersweet symbolism in the land of the free. A New York Times editorial dating from April of 1939 captured this well.

“In other world capitals there are trouble and apprehension, but in Washington the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are in bloom, the President has gone to Warm Springs for a vacation and the national legislators, coming out of session, may look riverward over a city already beginning to grow with green. Spring comes to other capitals. Democracy does not hurry it by a day, nor could a dictatorship hold it back. But comes to Washington, as any observer just now may conclude, with a special grace. For there, at this time of year, in spite of depressions, unemployment and unbalanced budget, one catches sight of a tranquil and expectant America.”

These blossoms served as a refuge of peace and tranquility during some of America’s—and the world’s—most troubled moments.

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