Once a year, trees across Japan bloom fleetingly with plump pink and white cherry blossoms, heralding the arrival of spring. Over the next few days, people across the country will flee the factory and office for picnics watered under sakura petals at about 1,000 cherry blossom viewing spots across the country.
The start of the season in Tokyo coincided with the end of quasi-emergency measures against Covid, but thousands of new cases are still being reported daily. Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, urged people to avoid parties “and just walk around” in parks to see the flowers. However, amid concerns of a virus rebound, the arrival of cherry blossoms has shed light on a deeper issue: climate change.
Cherry trees are responding to warmer weather by reaching full bloom much earlier than average. Records plummeted last year: Nearly half of Japan’s designated viewing cherry trees peaked early, breaking official records that began in 1953. In Kyoto, Japan’s former capital, the peak bloom date of March 26 broke the previous record set in 1409, according to climatologists. . Flowers in Tokyo are starting to open about a week earlier than half a century ago. “The upward trend in temperatures” is in question, concludes the Meteorological Agency.
The same phenomenon alarmed meteorologists in Washington, DC. Japan gifted the city’s famous cherry trees from the banks of the Arakawa River to Tokyo in 1912 as a sign of friendship. Last year’s Washington flowers peaked well above average. Because trees are sensitive to changes in temperature — and records of hanami parties, as they’re called here, go back centuries — they’re useful in shedding light on climate change, said University scientist Yasuyuki Aono. from Osaka Prefecture.
Not everyone is alarmed. Winemakers marched north to Hokkaido, Japan’s coldest island
Many older Japanese people associate Sakura Peak with the first day of school in April. But the flowers in some parts of the country disappeared before the start of the school year. Farmers in Japan are reporting a decline in the quality of rice, the country’s staple food. Some studies have predicted a sharp decline in rice production as temperatures rise.
Not everyone is alarmed. Winemakers marched north to Hokkaido, Japan’s coldest island. Pinot Noir vineyards have grown since 1998, when farmers began to notice warmer summers. About a third of the grapes in Japan (by weight) are now grown in Hokkaido. For better or for worse, says a tourist guide, climate change is making normal what was once unthinkable.
Yet Japan has less room for complacency than most because it’s an island nation – and one of the wettest in the world. It is particularly vulnerable to ocean warming. The Sea of Japan is 1.7 degrees warmer than a century ago, which means increasingly powerful typhoons, for one thing.
The number of hot days of 35 degrees and above and tropical nights with low temperatures of 25 degrees is increasing. The temperature could rise another 3.7 degrees over the next century, the Japanese Fisheries Research and Education Agency warns. Much of Osaka, with 19 million people and an economy as big as the Netherlands, could sink under rising seas. The lower areas of Greater Tokyo, a metropolis of 36 million people located on a plain crisscrossed by rivers, are also vulnerable.
In June 2018, Japan’s parliament, the National Diet, passed the Climate Change Adaptation Act, obliging local authorities and businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga surprised many in 2020 when he declared that Japan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Many doubt that these promises can be achieved without a revolution in lifestyles .
For now, millions have ignored those concerns and headed to the parks. Depriving the Japanese of cherry blossom festivals would be tantamount to snatching hugs from the Italians, Governor Koike said at the start of the pandemic. Hanami parties could relieve the stress of living with the modern plague and the threat of runaway climate change. Cherry blossoms, after all, are a symbol of the fragility of life.