text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Once again the credit goes to the Meiji Emperor the man who made the version with the 16 visible and 16 hidden petals the seal and coat of arms of his family and, by extension, the unofficially official crest of his country. Or the Orientalism/Japonism of the Westerners who discovered Japan at that time and came to believe that its combination of magnificence and beauty captures the country’s essence (Pier Loti’s “Madame Chrysanthème” came before Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and at the same time as Van Gogh’s paintings). Or Ruth Benedict and her notorious “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” –the first anthropological approach to Japan and, for many, its first serious interpretation (incidentally, it isn’t surprising that despite its glaringly obvious problems the book is still praised by Japanese and foreigners alike: anything promoting stereotypes on either side of the fence, it is usually by definition successful).
Maybe it is all the above combined. But whatever the reason, the chrysanthemum, one of the countless cultural loans of China to Japan has been identified with the latter to the extent that many Japanese believe it is their country’s “national flower” although there was never any institutional action to support that; cities and prefectures do have “official flowers” but not the country itself. Along with its cultivation, the Japanese also imported from Asia’s big empire its symbolisms and view it as a metaphor for rejuvenation (which they appreciate a lot) and longevity (which they desire even more). And, perhaps, from a visual perspective, a representation of the sun, the most lasting among their country’s symbols, source of its creation and cradle of its emperors.
As often happens with things Japanese, probably the most interesting side of chrysanthemums is one not visible when the fabulous flowers are exhibited in shows likes those organized these days in the Meiji Jingu and Asakusa’s Sensoji (autumn is the chrysanthemum’s season): for it to be presented as Japanese aesthetics dictate, each flower undergoes a particularly arduous “training” procedure so that its petals will rise just so and open exactly as much as needed; in this respect it doesn’t differ much from a bonsai dwarf-tree and like the latter, it can be seen as an illustration of the Japanese concept of nature and, perhaps, for life in general. Like a living crest, the chrysanthemum stops being itself and transforms into an idealistic, stylized representation of itself; a model or “kata”/形, among the many the Japanese employ to define themselves.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/