The Old Woman who Scattered Cherry Blossoms

Could the Old Woman who Scattered Cherry Blossoms revive a tree? The irrepressible author, kimono devotee, and designer saw no reason not to try. Reflecting on Uno Chiyo’s legacy and her take-charge approach to life, we see how she brought vitality to everything she did.

When Uno Chiyo died on June 10, 1996—at the age of 98—she left behind a legacy of feistiness, fun, and art. Her rich collection of literary works spanned three imperial reign years and featured a variety of genres from fiction, memoir, and essay. She published her last fictional work, “Ippen harukaze ga fuitekita” (Suddenly a Spring Wind), in 1987 when she was ninety.
In addition to literary works, she left behind a treasure trove of kimonos.

Uno founded the fashion magazine Style during the interwar years, which initially promoted the enjoyment of western wear. As the war wore on, the militaristic government instituted sumptuary laws and frowned on the consumption of Western clothing. Uno shifted her interests to the kimono. She began working with fabric, designing kimono patterns, many of which she used as bindings for her books.

Once the war ended and the dust settled, Uno used Style to showcase her kimono. Her designs at the time were often boldly abstract and asymmetrical, like a Paul Klee painting. While women rushed to embrace the Western fashions that had been forbidden earlier, Uno committed herself to the kimono, working with designers and manufacturers on new fabrics. She wore kimonos every day of the week.

As her brand grew in popularity, her style solidified. Her abstract patterns morphed into a delicate sprinkling of cherry blossom petals.

Gradually her business branched out into other products, such as handkerchiefs and scarves, and then into ceramics and other items that bore her signature cherry blossom petal motif. Today, long after Uno Chiyo’s death, her brand lives on.

Check online for “Uno Chiyo Goods” and you can find teacups, umbrellas, pajamas, and more bearing her prized cherry blossom pattern, even incense (not that cherry blossoms actually have much scent.)

Uno Chiyo once explained her fascination with scattering cherry petals.

She always enjoyed the folktale Hanasaka Jiisan or “The Old Man Who Made the Dead Trees Blossom.” The story is a bit complex. It deals with an old man who is pure in heart vs another who is greedy. To the pure fall gifts, to the greedy only grief. In one scene, the pure-hearted old man is instructed to scatter ashes over cherry trees. When he does so, the trees burst into bloom, just as the local daimyo is passing by. Delighted by the display, he bestows lots of gifts on the old man.

Uno Chiyo was fond of the image of flowerless trees bursting into bloom.

When she re-told the story, her face brightened with joy, as she held up her right arm and mimicked scattering ashes by the handful here and there. Whoosh, whoosh the trees burst into bloom.

In some ways, she saw herself in the old man’s role but called herself the “Old Woman Who Made the Dead Trees Blossom.”

Like the old man, she brought a dead tree back to life.

In the early 1970s, Uno’s friend, the literary critic, Kobayashi Hideo, told her about a cherry tree in Gifu Prefecture that was planted in the sixth century by Emperor Keitai, making it over 1500 years old.

Uno rushed off to see the tree for herself.

She was dismayed to find the tree on the verge of death.

Immediately, Uno launched a campaign to save the tree, raising funds and soliciting the support of the prefectural government.

Whereas she did not sprinkle magic ashes over the branches to coerce new life from the tree, she did see that grafts were made.

Photo of the tree from April 1, 2020.

Not only was the tree saved, the attention brought new tourist revenue to the area. Uno Chiyo was dubbed the patron saint of the tree and the town.

The experience led Uno to write the hauntingly beautiful novel Usuzumi no sakura (The Ink-Grey Cherry Tree) in 1974. It also inspired her scattering-cherry-blossom-petal motif.

Perhaps Uno Chiyo’s love of cherry blossoms also inspired me.

Her art and mine have overlapped in a number of ways—one of which I will share in my next post. Stay tuned!