Magnolia flowers are starting to fall off the trees, filling the neighborhood with their exquisite fragrance.

Admiring their beauty, which differs from that of cherry blossoms that invariably attract admirers, I recalled the words of Judge Yoshio Kuwata, the protagonist of “Kasai no hito” (Family court judge), a popular manga series that has been dramatized many times.

I made a mistake at work and now I am being scolded by magnolias, says Kuwata.

I used to find it odd that those blossoms would “scold” anyone, but as I kept gazing up at the tall trees, I began to understand how the judge felt. The flowers bloom skyward without fully opening, making them look as if they are quietly admonishing anyone who looks at them.

When I was stationed in Indonesia, I often saw local flowers of the magnolia family that were called champaca. And one time, I was warned at a Hindu temple in Bali: “Of the three major deities, Shiva is the one to whom you must never offer a champaca to.”

I was told this rule originated in an ancient tale, which went as follows: An evil priest, trying to gain favor with Shiva, was picking champaca flowers from a tree behind a holy man’s back and offering them to Shiva.

When the holy man became suspicious of the presence of flowers in the temple, he asked the tree if anyone had picked its flowers, but the tree lied and replied, “No.”

The holy man cursed the tree for lying and forbade the offering of its flowers to Shiva.

I find something endearingly human about a magnolia tree that scolds someone but is also punished depending on the culture and era.

Its origins are old. In Japan, a fossilized pollen of a related angiosperm has been discovered in a geological stratum that is roughly 110 million years old.

Kuwata, who loves plants, deals most gently and thoughtfully with minors who have been taken into protective custody by police. He believes that “punishing a vulnerable person in the name of justice must be a last resort.”

Perhaps he reached that state of mind after being scolded by an ancient flower.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 28

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.