The changing climate and Japan’s cherry blossom festival

As the climate changes, the phenology of constituent tree species will also change. For example, bud burst may be earlier or later, as may fruit production, leaf fall, and so on. Therefore, in Japan, where spring is marked by the blossoming of the cherry trees, phenological changes may have a marked impact upon how festivals associated with the spring blossom are organised. Thus, the purpose of this study was to determine whether residents of Japan recognise the association between the changing climate and the timing of cherry blossom, with particular focus on those involved with arranging the blossom festivals and those businesses who benefit from them.

Three sites were the focus of this study – two in rural areas (Kakunodate and Komoro), and one in an urban location (Nakano-ku). Collectively, the tree sites attract an estimated 1,500,000 visitors per year, during April and May (1,000,000 of which go to Kakunodate). The authors held personal interviews with the organisers of these three festivals (including staff and local government employees), and the managers of businesses who greatly benefit from the festivals taking place (food shops, in particular). During the interviews, questions were asked such as how the individual viewed climate change, what they considered to be impacting upon the changing climate, and how they felt the changing climate would affect the blossom festivals. In total, 28 questions were asked to each organiser and the average time taken to complete the interview was 40 minutes, whilst 12 questions were asked to bussiness owners and the average time taken was 10 minutes.

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The blossom festival in Kakunodate attracts around 1,000,000 visitors during April and May, every year. Here we can see a fantastic cherry-lined river. Just beneath the trees we can see a walkway full with visitors. Source: Japan Times.

Of the organisers interviewed, 92% of them said they felt climate change (global warming) was indeed occurring – the rest were unsure. In relation to festival-specific impacts, how organisers felt about a festival potentially missing the blossoming period (due to climate change) was highly varied (see below images), with organisers at Kakunodate being very concerned, and organisers at the other two locations not being overly concerned (if at all). The argument made the the organisers of the latter two was that people would still turn up to the festivals, perhaps because it’s a cultural thing that may exist independently from the blossoming itself. However, many managers of bussinesses were concerned over the festival’s timing. Those concerned stated that people may not frequent their shops if the festival missed the blossoming period. Despite this, some managers were relaxed about the issue, and felt they would not lose out on custom.

A few of the concerned organisers as Kakunodate, in response to the potentially changing blossoming period, said they would absolutely change the festival date to fit with the time of the blossom – this is not surprising. However, most of the organisers of all three festival sites stated they would only consider changing the festival time to fit with the blossom. The organisers of the two sites that were less worried about the festival timing not coinciding with the time of blossoming more notably held this attitude, though these two sites did have far fewer organisers involved (as they are smaller events).

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The responses by the individuals questioned to: ‘‘What if the festival missed the blossoms?”

 

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‘‘How can you and the festival / store cope with the change in flower timing?” was the question asked in this instance.

With regards to shop managers, many were not prepared to change as a result of the changing phenology of cherry trees. Businesses would operate as usual. However, as most managers interviewed were based at Kakunodate, this result may be somewhat skewed. Certain managers were prepared to plant cherry trees that blossom later, however – this would ensure that any change in phenology of the cherry trees did not fully divorce the festival from the blossoming period.

In terms of what individuals thought they could do to reduce their impact upon the changing climate, most suggested they could not use their cars so much, reduce on the amount of waste they produce, and so on. However, two individuals stated that they felt they were impotent, and there was a limit to what an individual can do.

From this study, we can see that the response individual stakeholders have to how climate change will impact upon blossoming times varies. In Kakunodate, where the festival is huge (attracting 1,000,000 visitors each year), organisers and shop managers were clearly more worried about the festival missing the blossoming period, when compared to the other two areas. This really is not something that is all too surprising, as the potential economic loss will be much greater (and for a rural economy, where other means of income may be less abundant). Furthermore, the fact that individuals also stated that they recognised climate change was occurring because of the changing blossom times, means that a culturally-important event such as this can be used to educate Japanese residents about how climate change can impact upon the ecological world.

nakanokublossom
A group of blossoming cherries in Nakano, Tokyo. This festival attracts around 250,000 visitors per year. Source: Weepingredorger.

Certainly, it would be interesting to see larger-scale studies undertaken across Japan, with focus also on those who visit the festivals. There is a huge risk of organisers and businesses owners being markedly biased in their response, with their concerns over the economic impact climate change may have upon their ability to operate at a profit clouding wider judgement and heavily influencing opinion. In addition, the study is automatically narrowed a great extent by removing a huge potential pool of data (visitors to the festivals), so the results should not necessarily be treated as highly indicative of the thoughts of the wider Japanese demographic (though the authors do recognise this). Even so, an interesting study that certainly makes you think, and is a wonderful foundation to build from in terms of research. It’s great to see such a topic being studied.

Source: Sakurai, R., Jacobson, S.K., Kobori, H., Primack, R., Oka, K., Komatsu, N., & Machida, R. (2011) Culture and climate change: Japanese cherry blossom festivals and stakeholders’ knowledge and attitudes about global climate change. Biological Conservation. 144 (1). p654-658.

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The changing climate and Japan’s cherry blossom festival

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