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Sakura (Traditional Japanese Folk Song)

Arranged by Michael Story. (Miami, FL: Belwin Mills, 2002).





Essential Questions & Information about Sakura



1.) What cultural and historical facts do we know about the song? 


SAKURA is a well-known, traditional Japanese folk song. It is also a popular children’s song. This old Japanese song was originally known as Saita Sakura. Sakura, which translates to “Cherry Blossom,” is about the Japanese cherry tree. The cherry tree represents beauty, peace and joy in the Japanese culture. But more importantly, the blooming of the cherry tree signifies the arrival of spring and therefore is associated with renewal and rebirth. The song refers to “hanami,” or blossom viewing. “Hanami” is an old tradition in Japan and a favorite pastime of the Japanese people during the spring.  There are many versions of the lyrics in the song, but the lyrics all tell the same story. They describe the beauty of the flowering cherry blossoms.





Japanese: English Translation:
Sakura sakura Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Noyama mo sato mo Blanketing the countryside,
Miwatasu kagiri As far as you can see.
Kasumi ka kumo ka Is it a mist, or clouds?
Asahi ni niou Fragrant in the morning sun.
Sakura sakura Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Hana zakari Flowers in full bloom.
Sakura sakura Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Yayoi no sora wa Across the Spring sky,
Miwatasu kagiri As far as you can see.
Kasumi ka kumo ka Is it a mist, or clouds?
Nioi zo izuru Fragrant in the air.
Izaya izaya Come now, come,
Mini yu kan Let's look, at last!



What is the song like when sounded by traditional instruments/voices?


This song is traditionally performed on the koto. The koto is a long instrument with 13 strings and is played with plectrums attached to the thumb, first and middle fingers of the right hand. The tune Sakura is one of the first that a beginning koto player learns.


How is the song taught traditionally?


Sakura is traditionally taught by ear to beginning koto players. However, there are many notated versions of Sakura available today.


How does the song live today for the people of and from that culture?

How does Sakura mean for people who live in Japan today?



People in Japan view Sakura as a new beginning.  Sakura represents the cherry blossom, which appears every year during the spring season.  Spring also represents new beginnings, as well as rebirth.  The cherry blossom flowers only live for one week, letting the people of Japan know that life is not only beautiful, but it is also brief.  In Japan, spring is when school ends for the year.  Many students graduate, creating a new beginning for their own lives.


In 1912, the Japanese gave the United States 3,000 sakura (cherry) trees.  This was in hope of a growing, new friendship between the two countries.  These trees line the shore in Washington D.C. and are a large part of the celebration in the United States.  Every year, there is a street festival called Sakura Matsuri held every year in downtown Washington D.C.  People who are from Japan can come and celebrate spring, even though they are not in Japan.   


How we can play the song in a way that illustrates what we’ve learned about how a person can reflect and respect a song and the people who own it and think it important?


A Lesson Plan for the Japanese Song "Sakura" [Cherry Tree]

as taken from:<http://iimp.chadwyck.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/articles/displayItem.do?QueryName=articles&Multi=yes&ResultsID=11D5ADD5483&ItemNumber=7&ItemID=iimp00605363&FormatType=raw&journalID=JID00274321&logType=fulltext>.


Standards addressed:

  • Standard 2: Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  • Standard 4: Composing and arranging music within specific guidelines
  • Standard 9: Understanding music in relation to history and culture



  • Recording of "Sakura"
  • Several sets of melody contour puzzle cards for student groups
  • One large set of puzzle cards for the board that can be seen from the back of the room
  • Picture, video, or audio of a koto (numerous Web resources are available)
  • Classroom xylophones and mallets.

Activity I : Listening Challenge

  • Distribute a set of puzzle cards to each group of three or four students.
  • Ask students, "What do you notice in your puzzle?" Talk about their ideas, which will help facilitate their solving the listening problem.
  • While listening to the song "Sakura" in its entirety, the students will figure out how to arrange these pieces of paper into the correct order in a way that represents the song.
  • When students have the melodic contour cards in the correct order, encourage them to sing along, continuing to trace the contour until all are ready. (This activity permits students to listen to the music several times, becoming familiar with the new sounds before attempting to perform it.)
  • The class checks the puzzles, possibly using large melodic contour cards on the board that students put in the correct order using their own cards as a guide.
  • Once all puzzles are correctly assembled, students may follow the iconic score by pointing to the part being played and sing the song until all can sing it easily
  • Performance through singing is informed by the study of the whole through listening and investigating the parts through the completion and tracing of the puzzle.

Exploring the Cultural Context of "Sakura"

In Shinko Kondo's experience, when American children first listen to "Sakura" most of them seem to think that it is a Halloween song because it uses an unusual mode with minor intervals. These types of sounds are frequently used in America to represent something sad or scary. The Japanese image of this song is beautiful, peaceful, and joyful. Sakura is the Japanese flowering cherry tree. The song refers to hanami, blossom viewing, a centuries-old tradition in Japan. Hanami is a favorite pastime in Japan during the spring.

At these moments, while students experience the music in a meaningful way, the connections that students make are truly constructed by prior experience in social cultural context and the history we live. Kondo has discovered that, after introducing the cultural background of "Sakura" to students and showing some pictures of the scene of celebrating the cherry blooms, they have said, "Oh yes, it's like Japanese music." They have entered the new world of sound, shifting and reconstructing their musical understanding in their own minds.This is a very touching moment for a teacher, and perhaps for the students as well.

  • During this activity, some children will compare what they know about Western music with what they have learned about music from listening to and singing "Sakura" and they will become aware of the differences of the mood. They express their understanding by saying things like,"Ms. Kondo, in this song, the notes are going up and down by step, sometimes by skip and leap just like songs we learned, but something is different-the feeling is slightly different, but why?" This type of discussion can lead to the next activity.


Activity 2: Analyze the Scale Structure.

  • Using the large melodic contour map of "Sakura" on the board, and providing the starting pitch and note name, invite students to sing the song using the note names. This will require more than one attempt, and some support will be needed to help students find the correct note at the large skips.
  • Make a list of the five notes names used. Discuss with your students how only five different notes (plus two octave-down pitches with the same note names) are used. Tell students that a scale using only five pitches is a pentatonic scale. Compare this to a diatonic scale, and figure out which pitches are included and which pitches are missing. Assuming that the song starts on G, the missing pitches would be F and C.
  • Explain to your students that there are many kinds of pentatonic scales all over the world, but the one used in "Sakura" is called hira joshi, one of the Japanese pentatonic scales.
  • Share with your students that in Japan, people might play this song on a koto, but they will be able to learn to play it on classroom xylophones. Have students find the appropriate pitches on the xylophones, and remove the unnecessary bars. Because there would not be a space on the koto between the pitches, students may move the bars next to each other (just as the strings would be placed or tuned on the koto). Learning to play the song with no skip where our Western ears hear a skip is a way of experiencing how the Japanese perceive this music to be "correct"
  • At this point in the lesson, allow students to figure out how to play "Sakura" Because of their previous experiences provided by this lesson that enabled students to make strong musical connections through listening and singing, students may spend some time figuring out how to play "Sakura" by ear, supported by their own singing and listening. 


Activity 3: Creating

  • Now supported by the listening to, performing through singing, and performing through playing "Sakura" students will work in small groups to create an introduction or coda or an accompaniment for "Sakura" using the notes of this pentatonic scale.
  • After having ample time to create and rehearse their music, students will share their arrangements with the class.


Print Sources


Blair, Deborah, and Shinko Kondo. "Bridging Musical Understanding Through Multicultural Musics." Music Educators Journal 94 (2008): 50-55.


Website Sources



Cherry Blossom Map




Cherry Tree (Sakura) Pictures




Audio Sources 


Harp & Flute




MP3: Sakura Variations



MP3 download



Video Sources



Flute, violin, cello, keyboard:



Played on kokyu “kokyu is a shamisen like instrument. it is like violin, but is different from violin in that kokyus bow is made loose, and is tightened with finger while playing.”



Children’s Choir



Sakura: Variations on Classical Guitar




Sources Used






About.com: Japan Travel

World Cultural Forum


Performances of Arirang by Students in School, Youth, and Honor Orchestras

"Variations on "Sakura" on Art of the Koto: The Music of Japan Played by Kimia Eto, Elektra Records CD 70234 



Choir: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNtPQxMrGFI&feature=related





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