Even people whose knowledge of Japan leans toward the scanty would probably have little trouble in naming the nation’s favorite flower. The intoxicating effect that the cherry blossom exerts in springtime Japan is a well-known phenomenon the world over. The length and breadth of the country, people gather for viewing parties under the clouds of pale-pink blooms. So pervasive is this flower’s impact that even in the manly world of rugby, Japan’s national team carries the decidedly non-macho nickname of “Cherry Blossoms.” However, it was not always thus. A millennium ago, the quintessential flower of Japan was not the cherry blossom but the delicate bloom of the plum.
Though almost universally referred to as the Japanese plum, the plant known in the vernacular as ume (Prunus mume) is in fact more closely related to the apricot. But linguistic habits die hard, and the term “apricot blossoms” is simply never heard when referring to ume. What is beyond doubt is that these graceful flowers appear at the coldest time of the year, from around mid-January to February.
After having been introduced from China in the seventh century, plum blossoms were at first regarded as splendid exotica in Japan, and the winter bloom won favor among eighth-century aristocracy and literati in the then capital of Nara. The ancient supremacy of the plum blossom over the cherry is evident in the great poetry collection of the Man’yoshu. This work, which was completed in 759, contains above 4,500 poems composed over a period of more than a century by hundreds of individual poets. A total of 118 poems extol the plum blossom’s beauty, whereas those performing a similar service for the cherry amount to a more underwhelming 42.
Plum trees are often planted in Shinto shrines dedicated to Tenjin, the deity of scholarship. And since the flowering of the plum coincides with the timing of school and college entrance examinations in Japan, the precincts of Tenjin shrines are often frequented then with hopeful teenagers. The students go to write their wishes on wooden votive tablets in the hope of receiving a little divine inspiration for when it comes time to answer that knotty question on particle decay in the forthcoming physics exam.
There is, however, a great deal more to the plum than floral elegance. The wood is prized for use in fine carving, and the important alcove pillar in traditional tearoom architecture is often hewn from plum. Since ancient times, the unripe fruit has been used in medicines to alleviate fevers and coughs. But by far the most prevalent use of the plum fruit is in the dried, salt-pickled form of umeboshi. Usually colored red through the addition of red shiso (perilla, beefsteak plant) leaves, umeboshi is most commonly eaten as a pickle with rice. Boxed lunches (bento) often feature a small red umeboshi atop a bed of rice, and this is held to be rather auspicious since the red round of the pickle surrounded by white rice resembles the design of the Japanese flag.
The official designation of that national flag is something that would not occur until over 1,100 years in the future when the final poem of the Man’yoshu was written. Among the poems singing the plum’s praises in the collection is one that also nods to its botanical rival:
When the plum blossoms are gone
Are not the cherry flowers
Ready to bloom in their place?
The poem notes how the cherry blooms later in the year than the plum, but this might also be seen as symbolically prescient. It was in fact conspicuously through the efforts of one poet, the twelfth-century Saigyo—considered one of Japan’s finest-ever masters in verse—that the plum yielded its top spot in the national affection to the native cherry blossom. Since then, it has of course been the cherry blossom that has grown increasingly popular and been planted on a huge scale in Japan’s gardens and along thoroughfares. Though the cherry has its magnificence, there is still quite a subtle splendor upon encountering a grove of white plum blossoms exuding their delicate fragrance. And they bring a little welcome warmth to the bone-cold depths of winter.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
[This article first appeared in the February, 2013 issue of the Japan Journal. Online version updated Jan. 17, 2021.]