TOKYO â€” This year in Japan, the rites of spring have transformed themselves into the rituals of sorrow.
Mondayâ€™s national holiday marked the vernal equinox, the start of a season enshrined in the nationâ€™s classical art and literature as a time of fragile, fleeting beauty. But at this springâ€™s onset, Japanese find themselves gazing upon an unfathomable landscape of death and destruction wrought by earthquake and tsunami.
The vernal equinox, like its autumn counterpart, is traditionally associated with reunions of kinfolk and visits to graves of ancestors. Both of these conventions, though, carry terrible resonance at a time of shattered families and nameless bodies piling up in makeshift morgues, a particular horror in a society with meticulously observed funerary customs.
â€œI came here to rest my mind for a moment,â€ said Taro Okuzawa, pausing at a tiny Shinto shrine perched, incongruously, on the rooftop of a busy department store in Tokyoâ€™s Ginza district. â€œI try to grasp what has happened to us, and I cannot.â€
Springtime normally ushers in a procession of Japanese matsuri, or festivals, many with roots in the eternal rhythms of agrarian life, the turning of seasons or the ways of the natural world.
This year, for many, natureâ€™s terrors hardly bear contemplating: shaking earth, waves like dark mountains, radiationâ€™s invisible menace.
Although cherished as cultural touchstones even in a hyper-modern, gizmo-laden land, traditional matsuri are likely to be scarce this spring. Their loss, only one among so many, is nonetheless mourned.
In the old shrine-dotted Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa, organizers had prepared for months for a celebration known as the Golden Dragon Dance, an exuberant whirl of lanterns, chants and drumming. But it would have fallen on March 18, only a week after the earthquake; it was swiftly called off. So was an even bigger festival in the neighborhood, a three-day extravaganza known as the Sanja Matsuri, which normally takes place in May.
â€œThe earthquake we just had is a once-in-a-thousand-year event, and we decided we needed to forgo our festival,â€ said Kouji Yano, a Shinto priest at Asakusaâ€™s main shrine. â€œWe just wouldnâ€™t be in the mood.â€
There are two schools of thought, though, as to whether pushing ahead with public events is an unseemly act at a time of immense national tragedy, or an emblem of the collective will to persevere in the face of upheaval, an often-expressed theme in their culture.