Translating “hanami”

It’s the time of year for hanami in many places–the cherry trees at our local arboretum bloomed last month, but Japan’s are now in full bloom, or will be soon, or just bloomed depending on where in the archipelago–and I am simultaneously happy and deeply jealous of everyone taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, while I know all about it, I have never attended hanami. It is absolutely something I want to do and will do as soon as I can, but I have never been in Japan in the springtime and somehow have always missed opportunities to participate in any of the makeshift hanami events held near me stateside. My senior year of college the Japanese TA and some Japanese students held a faux-hanami under blossoming (not cherry) trees on campus, but it wasn’t quite the same and I didn’t attend it. This year I was planning to go to a combination hanami-3/11 commemorative event under our local cherry trees, but it got rained out. Next year it’s happening though–my first hanami, in Japan, will take place! And it will be great! Because what’s not to love? Hitting up the conveni, then drinking and snacking under a canopy of gorgeous cherry blossoms. Ostensibly contemplating the transience of life, but more just enjoying a fun time with friends (perhaps coworkers). I love the whole idea of hanami and it is sooo frustrating that I haven’t gotten to do it yet.

Since I can’t discuss my personal hanami experiences, I’d like to talk about how we commonly translate the word hanami into English… and, okay, why I think that way is wrong, and my suggestion of an alternative. Also, the other possible -mi events/actions! I find them all pretty fascinating. For example, I may not have ever been to hanami (yet!!) but I have been to tsukimi, many times.

The word “stargaze” first set me off on this path. It’s interesting but there’s no word for “stargaze” in Japanese; apparently everything else can be looked at and get a special term–the moon, cherry blossoms, even plum blossoms–but not the stars. In any case, wouldn’t you say this is our go-to term in English for an activity centered around looking at something? “-gaze”? So why shouldn’t we translate the 見 (mi; look) in 花見 (hanami), 梅見 (umemi), 雪見 (yukimi), and 月見 (tsukimi) as “-gaze” too? Blossomgazing, snowgazing, moongazing? I know it sounds a little strange, but so does “flower viewing” or “snow viewing” or “moon viewing” to me. “Viewing” just seems too much like a dry literal translation. I also don’t like “flowers” instead of “blossoms”; in this context 花 (hana) refers directly to cherry blossoms, not flowers in general. I vastly prefer what I’ve come up with… even if I’m the only one who chooses to use it! Yes, I’m stubborn; see how I chose to write conveni instead of conbini because it’s more accurate to the English word it came from. I do what I want!

There’s also an interesting phrase that applies when it comes to hanami: 花より団子 (hana yori dango). This means “the dango more than the [cherry] blossoms” and refers to when people attending hanami care more about the dango and other snacks and drinks than looking up at the blossoms, the reason the event is happening. (It’s also a figurative metaphor admonishing those who value practicality, the food, over beauty, the blossoms–or, if you prefer, championing practicality over beauty.) I think we’re all probably guilty of enjoying one (or in my case, the thought of one) more than the other. It’s also interesting that the dango is a traditional snack for these sorts of -見 events; there are tsukimi-dango just as there are hanami-dango. Mmm… dango. When I do finally get to attend hanami in Japan, you can bet I am going to buy some hanami-dango and some sort of hanami/cherry/spring-centric-flavored canned chū-hi and do it right!

My little sister is currently an ALT with JET in Kyūshū, and I got to see some of her pictures of her local park covered in drop-dead gorgeous cherry blossoms; she also had a hanami there with friends in a nearby park. I can’t get over how beautiful it looks!

I wrote this as part of the April 2012 J∙Festa!


One thought on “Translating “hanami”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s