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The significance of trees in Japanese culture

by Timber Press on June 28, 2018

in Natural History

Perhaps because such a large part of the country is populated by forest, trees are particularly revered in Japan, and exemplify the relationship of “man in harmony with nature.”

Tree names alone show this special affinity between people and nature. Pine trees (Pinus thunbergii and Pinus densiflora) are called matsu, which means “waiting for a god’s soul to descend from heaven”, while the name of the ogatama-noki tree (Michelia compressa) can be translated as “inviting soul.” People believed that the tree had a special power to invite the soul of a god, so they used to plant it at the gate of a shrine.

Cherry Blossom
The centuries-old tradition of hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) is as popular today as it ever was. Many people flock to see the short-lived spectacle. The meaning of cherry blossom in Japan runs deep, making the country’s national flower a cultural icon. Cherry blossom is revered not just for its overwhelming beauty, but for its enduring expression of life, death and renewal. Linked to the Buddhist themes of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present, cherry blossom is a timeless metaphor for human existence. The display of blossom is powerful, glorious and intoxicating, but tragically short-lived – a reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting but beautiful. This floral imagery permeates Japanese paintings, film and poetry.

Large, old trees, such as Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), have a special significance as landmarks in Japan. They are revered for their stature and unique shape, for their record of climatic history in their annual rings, as examples of species that suit a particular environment, and as a guide to ecological rehabilitation of the surrounding area. It is believed that deities use these trees as landmarks when visiting on festival days.

Recently the Japanese have recognized the importance of these large trees, and attempts are being made to conserve them. There are even special doctors who can care for old weak trees. Growing at an altitude of 1,000m (3,280ft) on Yakushima Island, some giant Japanese cedars grow to heights of about 30m (100ft) and are over 2,000 years old. Small shrines are set on the trunks of these trees to reflect their spiritual significance.

The art of growing miniature trees in pots was introduced to Japan in the 7th century. Like most Japanese art forms, bonsai is a complicated yet subtle process in which the desired effect arises from the simplicity of the aesthetic, the product of painstaking hard work and patience. Bonsai is governed by a set of aesthetic guidelines that range from an aversion to symmetry to a desire to recreate the proportions of a fully grown tree.

The tradition of decorating doorways at New Year with pine branches called kadomatsu (which literally means “gate pine”) is still popular today and originally came from the belief that this was a way to welcome the gods to your home.

Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) often designates holy places. For example, when planting a tall bamboo called “the holy tree” on a paddy field, farmers customarily prayed to a god for a good rice harvest. Bamboo is revered for its rapid growth and symbolizes the mystery of strong life.


Yoshifumi Miyazaki is a university professor, researcher and the deputy director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences. He has published several books on the effects of forest therapy, and in 2000 Yoshifumi received the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Award for clarifying the health benefits. He is also the winner of an award from the Japan Society of Physiological Anthropology.

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