Every spring a tapestry of pink blooms blankets the island nation of Japan, starting in the south and crawling northward. Cherry trees, or sakura, symbolize the evanescence of human life in Japanese culture—their blossoms are both brilliant and brief.
In Tokyo, urban dwellers emerge from their homes and offices to take pause underneath the fleeting bloom, their daylong celebrations stretching into the night.
“They serve as a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is,” says photographer Albert Bonsfills, who captured the exuberant spirit of hanami, one of Japan’s oldest and most revered traditions.
Hanami, or flower-viewing celebrations, date back to the 9th century when Japanese emperors held viewing parties with their courts. According to folklore, the mountain deity traveled to rice paddies on floating cherry blossom petals and nurtured the crop. Thus, a long bloom became synonymous with a fruitful harvest. Because of this relationship to rice—which sustained human life—the tree was regarded as sacred. They decorated the armor of samurai, were tucked into the elaborately folded hairstyles of geisha, and graced the scrolls of poets.
But the symbolism behind Japan’s most iconic flower is complex and mutable. As the country underwent internal and external transformation, the cherry blossom’s meaning also evolved.
Falling petals—once a quotidian symbol of birth, death, and rebirth—transformed into a nationalist icon during Japanese colonial expansion. In 1912, Japan gifted more than 3,000 cherry trees to the United States as a gesture of friendship and political alliance. They were planted along the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C., which now shares the yearly blossom-viewing tradition.
During World War II the flower was once again reborn as a military symbol. Tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots took to the skies with branches affixed to their uniforms and a single blossom painted on each side of their planes: A motif of their final flight and sacrifice to the emperor. Trees were planted at military shrines and throughout Japan—their falling petals a reminder of the fallen soldiers.
Today over 200 species of cherry blossom trees cloak the archipelago of Japan. Though they've carried different meanings throughout the ages, they continue to bring communities together year after year under a common one: to celebrate Japan's most beloved flower.