More than schoolgirls, salarymen or neon lights, when video games want to evoke Japan, they pick one thing above the rest: cherry blossoms, or "sakura", as they are called in Japanese.
During spring, Japan is awash in pink and white. Cherry blossoms are in bloom for a short period (around two weeks or so), and thus, carry all sorts of connotations in Japan. For many, they are a metaphor for youth or the fleeting nature of life. But the delicate flowers have an underlining masculine appeal. There are also associations with both the samurai and the yakuza. During the war, the blooms were used as war propaganda. Cherry blossoms were planted in conquered territories, making the land as Japan's own.
For modern Japanese, much of the macho and nationalistic connotations are lost and cherry blossoms are appreciated for their "wafu" (Japanese-style) beauty. Yet, much of the society is organized around them and spring. In April, businesses start their financial year and schools start their academic year as the cherry blossoms bloom. The hundred yen coin has a cherry blossom on it, and what the bald eagle is to America, the cherry blossom is for Japan.
Besides games that use sakura as a motif or a title (think Sakura Wars), the blossoms are used to evoke Japan. When Gran Turismo 5 showed Kyoto in its photo mode, cherry blossoms fall gently like snow. Likewise, in fighting games like Dead or Alive, cherry blossoms add vibrance to the Kyoto stage. Even though their life span is ever so short, Sakura appear in game after game, whether it be Shogun 2 or Okami.
In the spring, weather reports note when and where the cherry blossoms start blooming, charting their move across the country. There are a variety of cherry blossoms that bloom, and it's not uncommon to see co-workers, friends and families gathered under cherry blossoms, eating, drinking and making merry before the last petal falls.
This year, conservative Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is asking citizens to refrain from "hanami" or "cherry blossom viewing" parties. "It's not the kind of situation for people to drink a lot of and have a pleasant time just because the cherry blossoms bloomed," Ishihara said. Thus, hanami events in Tokyo are being canceled in order to show solidarity with the victims of the quake. It's certainly not against the law to have a cherry blossom party, and there are those who will have hanami parties no matter what Ishihara says. With the recent events in Japan, there's no better reminder of how fragile and short life is than sakura.
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