Each year from around March, Japan is blanketed in soft pink and white petals as the cherry blossom front sweeps across the nation. It is a season as beautiful as it is fleeting, known as much for romantic picnics as for corporate drink-fests. But a new study by Rakuten Research suggests that when it comes to cherry-blossom viewing or “hanami,” as it’s known in Japan, things aren’t quite as rosy as they were in the past.

cherry-blossom viewing

From picnic rugs to lunchboxes, hanami gear comes in all shapes and sizes on Rakuten Ichiba, Rakuten’s Japan marketplace.

First, the research reveals a significant decline in the number of people intending to enjoy hanami this year. The figure was just 36.8%, which was down 8.3 percentage points from last year. While the survey didn’t provide reasons for this apparently wilting interest, it did turn up an interesting fact that might be related.

It turns out that when it comes to hanami there is a significant disconnect between people’s aspirations and their realities. When asked with whom they most wanted to enjoy hanami, a significant number of respondents named personal connections such as “family” (75%), “friends” (37%) and “romantic partner” (19.3%). Just 9.2% named “work colleagues.” And yet, when asked who they would actually go with, 14.7% answered, perhaps begrudgingly, “work colleagues.” Just 10.1% were on track to realize their dream of hanami with a “romantic partner.” So, while many Japanese people tend to think of hanami as a pastime to be enjoyed with personal acquaintances, the reality is that work often figures prominently in the mix.

While many Japanese people tend to think of hanami as a pastime to be enjoyed with personal acquaintances, the reality is that work often figures prominently in the mix.

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Japan in early spring, you may have come across an odd phenomenon. At most of the prominent hanami spots, dozens of individual plots of blue picnic sheets cover the landscape. Pass by early in the morning and you may witness a few lonely individuals scouting out the best spots, spreading out their own blue sheets, then waiting patiently – often many hours – for their companions to arrive. More often than not, what you’re witnessing is what might be called the preamble to the corporate “hanami” party – and the lonely spot-savers are generally the company, or department’s newest recruits. Often the chore is seen as something of a rite of passage. That said, it should be noted that 86.9% of respondents with hanami plans stated they had no intention of staking out plots in advance, but the research does show that spot-savers tend to be young, hinting that the corporate tradition may still be alive and well.

With regard to how long respondents were willing to wait, the most common responses were 30-60 minutes. Somewhat surprising, however, was the 3.4-point jump over last year in the percentage of those willing to save a spot from four hours in advance, from 8.8% to 12.2%. Perhaps smartphones now provide such dazzling options for time-killing that a 4-hour wait just doesn’t feel as long as it used to?

Finally, the big question on everyone’s mind is, “Why view cherry blossoms in the first place?” Well, for the respondents of the survey at least, they are most motivated “to experience spring,” (47.8%) followed by “to enjoy a good time with family/friends,” (45.5%) and, simply, “because I like cherry blossoms” (40.5%).

Whatever your reasons may be, we hope you too can someday experience the joy and beauty of hanami in Japan.