Monday, November 3, 2008


New York Botanic Garden in Bronx, New York City, is a wonderful place to visit if you happen to like flowers, plants, trees and casual encounters with small animals and birds in a park setting. Every season, the Garden puts up nice flower shows to highlight the beauty of particular time of the year. In autumn, the obvious choice is Chrysanthemum and this year, it showcases again Kiku, the Japanese art of cultivating and shaping of Chrysanthemum. Considering Chrysanthemum is the Japanese Imperial Emblem and regarded as the national flower of Japan, you can imagine the exhibit would be impressive and indeed it was.

, or Chrysanthemum was brought to Japan from China in 8th century. The royal family fell in love with it in the subsequent decades and centuries. The cultivation and enjoyment of kiku reached its height in the Edo period (1603-1867) when many varieties and displays were introduced. Four imperial styles of Kiku displays were shown at the Conservatory courtyards of the Garden. The new addition is the shino-tsukuri (“driving rain”) whereby two single stem plants were grown and trained into a shape of driving rain in a pot. Exactly 27 buds of a particular specie per pot is resulted in a 1,2,4,5,6,5,4 pattern from front to back.

Another style is called kengai (“cascade”) that literally means “hanging cliff”. Hundreds of small flowers from one single stem were grown and trained onto a boat shape frame over a 10-month period to depict the scene of chrysanthemums over a steep cliff.

Then there is the style ogiku (“single-stem”). It is the ultimate display of the overpowering individual beauty of Chrysanthemum in unison. 108 six feet tall chrysanthemums stand in an array, each supporting one giant ball of perfect blossom in diameter of over 6 inches.

The majestic one is the most difficult and elaborate style called ozukuri (“thousand bloom”) originally from the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, formerly the imperial garden. 229 large blossoms in a mount shape were grown from one single stem in a giant pot spanning almost 8x8 ft. It is simply awesome.

In the courtyard, two rock gardens with chrysanthemums round off the kiku display huts. You also can’t miss many varieties of beautiful Japanese maples in vibrant fall colors, shapes and sizes. The visit makes a perfect fall outing as one sits on the bench under the soft autumn sun and is surrounded by these exotic plants and ponds filled with water-lilies in reflections.
Strolling further down the paths of the garden, we caught glimpses of several Henry Moore’s massive sculptures in their final days of display on the garden ground. Moore’s work “Draped Reclining Mother and Baby” of 1983 when he was 85 years old touched our nerves in particular; the disproportionally large, yet almost-hollowed frame of the mother shelters the baby from the world in her arm as she gives it all and lies confidently against the setting sun. Further down the road, we ran into a man who is feeding birds off his palm. A beautiful medium size red-bellied woodpecker hung around nearby and wait for her term.

As we walked back to the car and drove down to Manhattan, I can’t rid of the bright images of those chrysanthemums from my head. Every fall, markets and roadside stands of our area display and sell them in pots. Hundreds of small flowers of similar size silently cramped in a small hemisphere in uniformity for people’s attention. In few weeks of time, as the temperature drops, they lost their glory and faded away quietly. Why are Japanese so attracted to a sad flower like Chrysanthemum as winter is around the corner to pronounce its inevitable death?

Over 60 years ago, Ruth Benedict, a famous anthropologist, wrote an influential bookThe Chrysanthemum and the Sword 菊與刀 as a part of U.S. government’s WWII effort to understand the Japanese culture and psyche. While she never had the chance to be in Japan for her research and there were some criticisms of her book, this seminal work did offer unusual insights into Japanese society and remains relevant as one of the most important references in study of Japanese culture including Japanese themselves.

One key observation and theory proposed by Ruth Benedict was that Japanese is a shame-based culture (as opposed to a guilt-based) whereby it “rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticisms...” The implication is that it is possible to look to others for acceptable social norms without strong internal examinations. As a result, it is easier to be swayed to engage in acts when people feel the mutual supports for a common cause be it good or bad. It is also easier for the society as a whole, as demonstrated post WWII, to switch to a completely different path and erases its own memory. In fact, until this date, most Asians are convinced that Japan has not truly apologized for its atrocities in WWII nor expressed sufficient remorse. Even when measured in words, Japanese government has used mild expression such as Hansei 反省 (relective remorse) instead of stronger words like Kaikon 悔恨 (active remorse, regret), or Shazai 謝罪 (apology). Indeed, some leading Japanese politicians continue to visit the Shinto shrine to pay tributes to renounced war criminals and its Ministry of Education has been rewriting its textbooks in attempts to play down its war crimes and aggressions.

The choice of the title of Benedict’s book and the symbolism of the coexistence of Chrysanthemum and Sword cannot be mistaken. The contrast of the elegance and fragile beauty with steel power and death is stunning. I will probably never truly comprehend the complex psyche of Japanese culture that is full of contradictions with delicate balances striving for perfection and order, but that is a beauty in itself perhaps. Shall we visit other national flowers and learn more aspects of various cultures sometime?

Talk to you soon!

No comments: