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  Petal Power: Reflections on a Short, Sweet Life

    Jiro Kamimura
"It falls before it withers out," says Jiro Kamimura. "That's the ideal of a human being. ... That is the cherry blossom."
(Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
By Paul Hendrickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 1999; Page C1

A 63-year-old man in a blue suit and perfectly knotted tie went down to the Tidal Basin late yesterday morning. In a sense he was like any other Washingtonian with a longing to stand beneath a tree with small limbs and smooth bark and experience a cone of five-petaled flowers falling about him.

But he wasn't.

For one thing, he is Japanese.

And for another he has inside him childhood memories of World War II, on the edge of Tokyo, when American warplanes blackened the sky. It was such a long time ago, but the child within the man can still hear the overhead drone. And curiously, the drone is not something awful. Not that it is exactly beautiful, either.

His name is Jiro Kamimura. He had a 40-year career with the Mitsubishi Corp. He has lived and traveled all over the world. He grew up in an ambassador's family. Yesterday this distinguished business consultant, who has an office on K Street, was trying to pierce for a Western mind the legend of the cherry blossom. Its inner heart is paradox and riddle. Its inner heart has to do with the idea of beauty as death, and death being beauty, the one interdependent on the other.

"It's very difficult," he said. "It's very simple. Bittersweet is the essence. You die beautifully and leave behind a memory of your glory."

Jiro Kamimura has silvered hair parted a few degrees to the left of middle. Yesterday he had a pressed white hankie with a thin blue border peeking out over the top of his vest pocket. The jacket of his suit seemed to fit him like an envelope. The coat was fastened at the middle button, even during the brief ride from downtown Washington to the Jefferson Memorial.

At the Tidal Basin, beneath a tree, he held up his right hand and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger. One tip of skin was barely touching the other tip. He smiled and the smile was like a small explosion on his smooth features.

"You see, it's a different culture. We are talking of a very short life. It never withered out. It falls before it withers out. That's the ideal of a human being. You retire at the peak of your career, before people are talking about you. That is the cherry blossom. It shines so beautifully, but even as its beauty is being shown to you, revealed to you, there is the bittersweet knowledge that it cannot last. This is a deeply rooted philosophical idea in Japanese culture."

If the ultimate flower in Japanese culture is the cherry blossom, he said, the ultimate human being is the samurai.

A mallard flapped on the still water. People in paddle boats were beating their clunky crafts against the light breeze. Overhead, an airliner was shooting the river approach at Reagan National. It curved and arced and droned. You could see metal glinting in the sun as the powerful thing came down the corridor of the Potomac.

Kamimura had a piece of paper in his pocket, and he took it out now. In large type, perhaps typed by his own hand, was a waka. He said a waka is a form of Japanese verse, something like a haiku. It depends, he said, on a precise number of syllables in a precise sequence. The words on his piece of paper were these: Skikishimano Yamatogokorowo Hitotowaba Asahini Niou Yamazakurabana.

The first cherry blossom
These buds are for us: The first of the Tidal Basin's cherry blossoms popped out Wednesday.
(Gerald Martineau/The Post)
Beneath those words, the English translation: "If one will ask what is the heart and soul of Japanese, it is like wild cherry blossoming in morning sun ray."

"The beauty has to do with the falling," he said. He didn't say with the dying, though that was understood.

As it happened yesterday, only one cherry tree was blossoming at the Tidal Basin in morning sun ray. It was a weeping cherry, and it is located on the south side of the Jefferson Memorial. Hundreds and hundreds of other cherry trees near and around the water were in the moment of near-blossom. Perhaps it would be another two or three days before their soft explosion. "If you give a little bit of water, then one more warm day, suddenly it happens," Kamimura said, putting his hand to his heart.

In a poem called "God's Grandeur," the 19th-century English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed." That's a little of what it felt like at the Tidal Basin: something implacably beautiful gathering to its unstoppable greatness.

Jiro Kamimura had another word on his piece of carefully typed paper: Mujyo. He put a thin, brown index finger on the word. The word typed beside it was "Unconstant."

"It is a Buddhist aesthetic. The flower will wither, the warrior will die, the world will fade away."

"Unconstant": So a war rages in an inconstant place called Kosovo. So this particular springtime brings so many stirred feelings and news reports of death – in the presence of so much birth.

In a sense, a lone blossoming cherry tree, out ahead of all its brothers and sisters, was enough, more than enough yesterday, to begin to get Kamimura's paradox of transient beauty somehow becoming intransient beauty. Because once you've experienced the bursting of a cherry blossom, its memory – like the memory of a kamikaze son of Japan in a long-ago war who starbursted into the sides of Yankee flattops – never goes away. The honor and memory of the deed simply exist inside you.

A statistic: Three thousand nine hundred thirteen kamikaze pilots died for their country in World War II. They died on torpedoes and in fighter planes and light bombers and something called Ohka rocket bombs. An Ohka was specially designed so that its occupant had no way of getting out once belted in. In English, the Japanese word Ohka means "exploding cherry blossom."

Jiro Kamimura, born in 1935 into a family of privilege, was a boy in World War II. He was evacuated to a makeshift school at the edge of Tokyo. The school was near three Japanese air bases, and he can still see himself and his elder brother standing on hillsides, watching for enemy airplanes – the fighters and the B-25s and the big B-29s. Was he scared?

"No. We loved it. It's 'Star Wars.' I can remember seeing Japanese fighters banging into American planes. The teachers are yelling at us to get into the bomb shelters."

He was asked if he could have been a kamikaze, were he just a little older. Could he have seen himself belted into something that was impossible to get out of? Yes, he said, although with a beat of hesitation. "It's not sad at all. To tell the truth, I felt the same thing. If I was 20 ... "

His otherwise serious face starbursted once more into smiles, and he let the sentence fade away. In a sense, it was like the start of a terrifyingly beautiful haiku. If I was 20 ...

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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