Cherry blossoms ease Japanese hearts

A nation beset by troubles pauses for spring healing


TOKYO - It was Friday afternoon, and Hisatoshi Nishide, a 36-year-old corporate financial planner in a black suit, was supposed to be at a bank meeting.

Instead, Nishide lingered in a private reverie, his mind embraced by long, delicate arms of pink - the flower-encrusted branches of a "weeping cherry blossom" tree.

"I feel my heart lightened," he said when asked his thoughts. "This part of nature has not changed. For a moment I get rid of the dark news. The Iraq news really depresses me."

For centuries, the Japanese have indulged in a collective rite of spring. Eager to throw off the dark and cold of winter, they closely watch their favorite cherry trees. Then they hurry to hold "hanami," or cherry blossom parties, racing to beat the spring rains that wash away the fragile petals.

This year, cherry blossom viewing has taken on an air of national therapy against a host of woes. Real-time television images of the fighting in Iraq are upsetting this modern nation, now profoundly pacifist. Closer to home, the missile threat and hostile rhetoric of North Korea have led 40 percent of Japanese polled recently to say they fear that their nation might be dragged into war.

The stock market is in the basement. Hospitals brace for - any day - severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a fatal virus sweeping Asia.

For Ichitaro Yamashita, a World War II veteran, the television war coverage is irresistible.

"I watch maybe two hours a day of the Iraq war news," said Yamashita, a 78-year-old retired cookie-machine maker. "This is a sort of a healing after all the dark news."

Naosuke Kanabayashi and Mari Kamamiya, both 22 years old, stood transfixed on a path in Hama-rikyu Gardens under a thick canopy of cherry blossoms.

"I feel Japanese tradition," said Kanabayashi, a part-time telephone operator. "This is the Japanese soul."

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