“The sunflower bathes its flesh in golden oil, languidly craning up so high – oh how small the sun” ~Tanka poem by Yugure Maeda
Jody and I were out exploring the rustic coast of Miyakojima during a recent island getaway, with no particular destination in mind. Heading down one of the many detours we took that afternoon, we happened upon a tall, shimmering field of sunflowers begging for attention. Of course we had to stop… and stop we did!
The Sunflower (ヒマワリhimawari) is a popular plant in Japan, cultivated here since the 17th century. Over time, it has come to represent respect, passionate love, and radiance, not surprisingly. As a countless mass of yellow and green, they were certainly standing tall that day, busily basking in the glimmering rays of the sun.
Not only did Jody happened to be wearing just the right dress for the occasion, she also happily obliged my request for an impromptu modeling shoot. Usually reserved and quite contained, Jody seemed to absorbed some of the flowers’ radiance, then reflected that back to the iris of my waiting camera. The flowers spoke silently to us, as they do for so many others, an essence of such plants true the world over. But more so in Japan. So much so in fact that the Japanese have developed a symbolic language of flowers called hanakotoba.
Hanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese language of flowers, or more correctly, the ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers. Historically, and in many societies, flowers were given meaningful codes and not-so-secret passwords. If you wanted some to know you were interested in courtship? Wear this one. Want to express condolences for another’s loss or suffering? Wear that one. This interpretation of nature takes account of the overall psychological effects and even physiological reactions which can happen under the influences of a flowering plant’s color, texture, and smell. In other words, flowers can directly convey emotion, and communicate quite clearly without the need or use of more pedestrian words. More mystically, flowers are often used to express that which cannot be spoken.
These pictures are already some of my fondest memories of Okinawa this time around (See Paradise Lost for a less happy memory). The low afternoon sun and the temperate breeze made our time in the flowering field not just comfortable, but comforting. There’s just something about sunflowers that is special. I’m not sure if it’s connected to childhood memories or just their sheer size…or both. Well, it’s probably because I got to capture my beautiful wife among them and freeze the moment for all time.
In Japan, flowers are not just given to women. And when they are given, the act is not taken nearly as lightly as it is in the United States. The underlying meaning of the flower given determines the message sent – and hopefully received. Communicating without words can often ease tension and break the ice which is often stifling and thick and permeates many aspects of Japanese socialization.
For me, the sunflowers speak to Jody, whispering to her of her radiance and beauty. Things in her case for me that are best expressed through nature as they cannot be fully appreciated through spoken word alone.