What’s The Buzz? – “Sakura” and Culture Transformation

Koto omoidasu

– Many things, the cherry blossoms put me in mind of
by Matsuo Bashou (the creator of Haiku)

Cherry blossoms are a symbolic flower of the spring, the fleeting nature of life, and a time of renewal. The sakura, or cherry blossom, holds special significance in Japanese culture.

While North American schools begin in the fall, the Japanese fiscal and school year begins in April, the season of sakura. They feel the fully bloomed cherry flowers are celebrating and welcoming their brand-new start. Many schools and companies have cherry trees outside of them, and now that spring has arrived, it’s a good time to bring the traditional story of the cherry blossom into our metaphors for corporate culture transformation.

One of the most loved poems in Japanese culture revolves around the sakura. It’s called the “Iiroha Song”. It was taught to children as a way of teaching them the alphabet, for never is a syllable (or character) repeated twice in the verse. By learning the song, they learned the alphabet in much the same way that our children do with “A-B-C’s”. In the Japanese poem however, the syllables together also form a story about the sakura, life – and change.

“Iiroha” roughly translates as “the colour is…” – but in order to understand the meaning, you need the rest of the sentence, with which the story begins. It is: ” Ii ro ha ni oh eh do …” – which means “The cherry flower is blossoming brilliantly in colours you can smell … ” – they are brilliantly blooming for all the senses. What a wonderful picture! It continues: ” … chi ri nu ru wo“, meaning ” … they’re gone at the same time”.

Because the flowers don’t all blossom at the same time – some sooner, some later – the tree looks and smells like it is in full bloom all at once. But in fact, as it blossoms, it is losing the flower at the same time. Just like the syllables in the poem, they are there fleetingly, and only once.

Matsuo Bashou was fascinated with change. He played with the tension between tradition, culture, and change – not only in his poetry, but also in his life as an itinerant traveller. He explored what things can and should change, and what things should not. The difference is learned through practice of tradition. In Japan, some examples of tradition are: the tea ceremony, martial arts, and poetry.

Like all traditions, they are rigorously practiced. Traditions are practiced in order to understand what can be changed. A true master can rise to the challenges of change because s/he knows what is important to retain as tradition, and what is not. The Master understands that if you change the wrong thing, or change too much, tradition is gone and it is impossible to pass along. Purpose is rendered obsolete.

In fact, it is through practice we innovate; for practice does not result in perfection. On the contrary, it creates a practice of ever-evolving imperfections. Imperfection is the basic principle. In fact, the relentless pursuit of perfection — in possessions, relationships, achievements , and in business — often leads to stress, anxiety, depression and hasty judgement. So, tradition must be practiced in order to understand and manage change.

Bashou says: If you retain tradition, but lose the practice, culture dies. Culture. It’s not the soft stuff that is a nice-to-have-add-on. It’s how the organization operates. It’s co-created patterns of relating that are deeply embedded at the collective level. It’s networks and layers of conversations. Process transformation cannot be separated from culture transformation. Processes are just one part of culture.

Toyota’s culture metamorphosis is legendary, and trotted out ad nauseum in western business circles. “Kaizen” as a concept has been adopted by software development to define a culture of continuous improvement in order to reduce waste. Japan was able to modernize its culture after the Samurai era, because they knew what to change through practice. What stayed the same? The 7 virtues of “Bushido” – the Samurai code of honour.

So what must change? Culture. How does it change? Through practice.

What must remain? Tradition. How does it remain? Through practice.

Tradition is the past, making one unified body, enabling us to move forward. Culture is the future – it’s our stories of who we are striving to become. But practice is the present – and we are perpetually in the present. In fact, there is no other time in which we can exist. This is why Masters teach mindfulness.

So we cannot talk about “kaizen” without its counterpart, “wabi sabi”. “Wabi” is defined as “rustic simplicity” or “finding mental richness (fulfillment) in poverty or material shortage”. “Sabi” is “taking pleasure in the imperfect” or “to find deep meaning (richness) in peaceful tranquility. “Kaizen” alone is like expecting the cherry tree to be in full flower, each blossom, all the time.

The “sakura” are a symbol of transience. We, too, are perpetually in a state of change, miraculously rooted in our pasts, even as we imagine our futures – breath by breath, blossom by blossom.

– Anna Garleff, ©2019

I had the pleasure of working in a Japanese organization for many years, and learned much from a Japanese housemate, who is a practicing Akido Master. My gratitude to these people for their teachings.