text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
When the waters from the March 11, 2011 mega-tsunami pulled back, the town of Rikuzen Takata in Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture had been, in effect, wiped of the map. 80% of its homes had been washed away, a big part of its population was dead and out of the 70,000 trees of the forest in the Takata Matsubara beach only one was left: a 35 feet tall pine with only its top still intact which became a symbol of hope not only for the town’s survivors but for Tohoku itself. Still, no one was surprised that the only thing that survived was a pine; in the Japanese conscience, the pine is probably the most lasting symbol of endurance, longevity and good fortune.
Although these symbolisms came from China, it didn’t take them much to put down roots in Japan: like all coastal countries, the Japanese islands are filled with pine trees and the people noticed very early that the particular tree doesn’t lose its foliage whatever this land’s hostile nature throws against it. And as the Japanese civilization began taking shape, the pine became more and more entwined with it; as fuel that gave life to the potter’s and the swordsmith’s kilns, as the only image in the “kagami-ita”, the backdrop-scenery of Noh theater, as New Year’s decoration and wish for a good luck and a long life, as the symbol of highest quality in the traditional triptych “shou-chiku-bai” (松竹梅) or “plum-bamboo-pine”, as preferred tree for the bonsai miniatures, as a synonym for anticipation and waiting in poems because its name (“matsu”) is a homophone for the verb “to wait” and as an element in countless names of people and places.
As I have written before, there are numerous symbolic plants in Japanese culture: a people that up until 150 years ago made its livelihood from farming, that still puts much of its faith in a pagan religion and that, despite its countless interferences with nature, never ceased to appreciate it in a very special and personal way, will inevitably attribute to many natural phenomena characteristics it sees (or would like to see) on itself. If bamboo is a symbol of the yin, feminine and yielding endurance, what the Japanese see in the pine is a more yang and masculine power, the obstinacy one needs to stand against everything and cry that they haven’t fallen, that they are still alive and that nothing can stop them –and at the same time, they see the marks of this obstinacy on its calloused and gnarly trunk.
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.