The $7 billion business of forecasting Japan’s cherry blossoms
By Low De Wei and Marika Katanuma
As millions seek out prime locations to catch a glimpse of Japan’s famed cherry blossoms, or sakura, their enjoyment hinges on one of the most unusual forecasts in the world.
Each year, meteorologist Hiroki Ito predicts blooming dates for about a thousand sites across the island nation’s towns and cities. And he’s far from alone, in a crowded industry that has grown to cater for tourists and locals clamouring to get that perfect Instagram shot of the ephemeral pink petals.
While the practice of viewing the blossoms — known as hanami in Japan — is a centuries-old tradition, it’s also good for business. Some ¥616 billion ($7.1 billion) in economic activity will be generated in 2023, according to an estimate by Osaka’s Kansai University. This year in particular, it’s thrown a lifeline to the country’s struggling tourism sector, which was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s adding to the pressure on Ito, who is employed by and makes predictions for Osaka-based Japan Meteorological Corp., one of the major private providers of cherry-blossom blooming data. Small and big businesses alike — from Starbucks, which rolls out sakura-themed lattes during spring, to tour operators and accommodation providers — depend on the season for highly profitable marketing campaigns and promotions, making the forecasts closely scrutinised.
“There is strong attention from the public, so if you make a prediction, it will be seen by many people,” said the 37-year-old, who collects temperature readings year round to fine-tune his computer models. “It will also lead to increased recognition of your company.”
Incorrect forecasts can be damaging, as national forecaster Japan Meteorological Agency found back in 2007, when it was forced to make a public apology after predictions missed the mark by nine days and “caused some trouble.“. It stopped publishing forecasts more than a decade ago due to the proliferation of businesses providing the service.
The viewing window at any given location is short, with peak bloom, or mankai, typically lasting around one week. Ito makes his initial forecasts for the year in January and then adjusts them regularly until the main event. At the beginning of 2023, he predicted blooms would open in Tokyo on March 22. But by the beginning of the month, due to unseasonably warm weather, his seventh forecast had shifted to March 15. He was just one day late.
In recent years, predictions have increasingly been complicated by the effects of climate change, with unseasonal temperatures throwing forecasters a curveball. The trees’ flower buds form as early as summer and lie dormant until the winter, which kick-starts the flowering process. Any unusual temperature variations can affect blooming times.
In 2021, famed spots including Kyoto experienced a particularly early flowering, an occurrence researchers say is becoming more common and will likely happen at least once every five years by the end of the century due to human activities’ impact on the climate.
While Ito works alone, he has some tough competition. Rival Japan Weather Association has a team of about 10 people working on their forecasts. The company employs staff in various offices to observe specimen trees, while analysing data from cooperative weather stations, according to Aiko Saito, deputy manager of the company’s media and consumer business department.
Japan Weather Association doesn’t generate revenue directly from its bloom forecasts, but the media attention it attracts can have a positive effect on its corporate business, according to Saito. “The need for cherry blossom forecasting information is very high, not only in Japan but also for inbound visitors,” she said.
As for Ito, he’s branching out. His prediction methods are now being used to predict other photogenic weather-related events, including the best time to view autumn foliage, and more problematic ones, such as pollen releases. He’s also seeking to apply the technology to help fruit farmers more accurately predict when to begin harvests.
But his devotion to cherry blossoms remains. And with half the country yet to witness this year’s spectacle, all eyes will remain glued to his, and others’, predictions until the final sakura blooms have opened sometime in May. Until next year.
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Source: Thanks smh.com