By Takaaki Ishida
When spring comes, blossoming cherry trees along the Potomac River in Washington D.C. inspire conversation and admiration. These are the trees the City of Tokyo gave as a gift of friendship to the people of the United States of America on behalf of the people of Japan just 100 years ago.
The mayor of the city of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki – meanwhile regarded as the father of parliamentary democracy in Japan – was one among several eminent persons who proposed to the municipal council such a gift because cherry blossom is associated with the evanescence of human life and embodies the transformation of Japanese culture throughout the ages.
However, it was not until after some time that – supported by Ozaki and several other personalities in Japan and the United States, committed to strengthening U.S.-Japan friendship – the Tokyo city council endorsed the plan.
Back in 1909, First Lady Helen Herron Taft was exploring ways of beautifying the reclaimed Potomac waterfront. “Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this,” she wrote in a letter in April 1909.
It was Dr Eliza Scidmore, journalist and first female board member of the National Geographic Society, who recommended to the First Lady the planting of Japanese cherry trees after her visit to the country in 1884. She was fascinated by cherry blossoms and deeply impressed by the Japanese people’s sentiment and culture of admiring cherry trees. Over the next twenty-four years, she tried in vain to translates the idea into practice.
Dr. David Fairchild of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a botanist, was equally mesmerized by the beauty of Japanese cherry trees when he visited Japan in 1902 as a member of the U.S. research mission on seeds and seedlings. His passion for Japanese cherry trees was such that he even planted its saplings on a hillside on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he attempted to test their hardiness on U.S. soil.
Together with one of his close friends Dr Charles Marlatt, an entomologist, Fairchild invited friends for a cherry blossom viewing party at his residence. Scidmore was among the invitees. She and her hosts found themselves on the same wavelength.
Having secured support from Fairchild and Marlatt, Scidmore called on the First Lady – who had visited Japan in 1905 and seen children enjoying cherry blossom viewing – and proposed the planting of the Japanese cherry trees. The First Lady willingly gave her consent, and thus got underway the cherry planting project along the Potomac River.
Another eminent figure of the cherry tree project was Dr Jokichi Takamine, the first president of the Japanese association in the United States, and a world-famous Japanese chemist who discovered hormone adrenaline and enzyme takadiastase. He had for several years undertaken efforts to promote U.S.-Japan friendship. He also had a plan to plant Japanese cherry trees and had been lobbying for the purpose with the New York City authorities.
Learning of the First Lady’s decision, Takamine offered to donate 2000 Japanese cherry trees to the U.S. with all relevant expenses to be covered by influential Japanese living in the U.S. including himself. When he met Mizuno Kokichi, the Japanese consul-general in New York, he was told that Washington was to have Japanese cherry trees planted along the Speedway. He asked whether First Lady Taft would accept a donation of additional two thousand trees. Mizuno appreciated the idea and suggested that the trees be given in the name of the City of Tokyo. First Lady Taft agreed to accept a donation of 2,000 cherry trees.
Ensuing coordination by Mizuno and Kogoro Takahira, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. led to a consensCredit: nps.govus that those cherry blossom trees should be donated to the U.S. by the capital city of Tokyo. Subsequently, Japan’s Foreign Ministry consulted with the City of Tokyo in this regard. Mayor Ozaki, who had cherished his wish to express the gratitude of Japanese people somehow to the U.S. which took a friendly stance towards Japan during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), regarded this as a good opportunity to do so and gladly accepted the proposal. Subsequently in August 1909, the municipal assembly of Tokyo formally decided to donate 2000 saplings of cherry trees to Washington D.C.
However, those 2,000 trees which arrived in 1910 were found diseased by quarantine officials and burned after President William Howard Taft gave his consent.
When Mayor Ozaki learned of the news, he proposed to the municipal council that the city of Tokyo cultivate healthy and best saplings of cherry trees and donate to Washington D.C. again. The municipal councillors agreed to the proposal in April 1910. About 3000 saplings free from bugs and diseases arrived in the U.S. capital in March 1912 and were planted. It is said that even specialists in the U.S. at that time were amazed to see the perfect condition of saplings arriving from Japan.
In 1915, three years after the gift of cherry trees from Japan, the United States Government reciprocated with a gift of 40 flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan. Those saplings were planted at parks and botanical gardens in Tokyo. Fairchild was among members which selected dogwood for this occasion. He wished that Japanese children would enjoy watching dogwood in full bloom just as American children cherish the Japanese cherry blossoms, thus deepening the bond of friendship between the two countries.
Yet another significant aspect the of cherry blossoms along the Potomac River: When the Jefferson memorial building, dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, an American Founding Father and the third President of the United States, was going to be built by the Tidal Basin seawall, it was planned that 358 cherry trees would have to be cut down. However, on the day of cutting those trees, members of women associations in Washington D.C. tied themselves to those cherry trees in protest and saved 270 of these.
Of course, there were many more distinguished and common people who undertook great efforts to make the cherry tree project a reality, and thus underline the importance of U.S.-Japanese relations. . Particularly the efforts made by specialists, artisans and local people in growing healthy saplings while staking national pride towards the second donation were immeasurable.
These trees are providing shelter to this year’s national cherry blossom festival from March 20 to April 27, 2012. As part of the festival, various initiatives have been launched to muster support for victims of the Great East Japan earthquake in March 2011. Also performances and parades by elementary and junior high school students from Fukushima prefecture are planned.
One hundred years later, it seems that new sentiments from both sides of the Pacific are contributing to further deepening the bonds of U.S.-Japan friendship.
Takaaki Ishida is Secretary General of Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation in Tokyo.