Celebrating friendship with Japan and 100 years of U.S. hanami

by Manami Okazaki

Special To The Japan Times

Once an activity for the nobility of the Imperial court in Japan, hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) became a popular tradition among the elite ruling class during the Heian Period (794-1185), and then later, with the encouragement of Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), among commoners.

Today, Japanese people typically lay out bright-blue tarpaulins beneath cherry trees in parks, set up picnics, meet up with friends and colleagues, and consume a lot of alcohol — sometimes until they actually embarrass themselves.

But it’s not just in Japan that the public are enjoying such a celebration of spring. Across the globe, more than 10,000 km away, another set of locals are celebrating the en masse blooming of cherry trees in one of the most attended spring festivals in America: the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

Washington is home to more than 3,000 cherry trees, which line the Tidal Basin, framing iconic landmarks including the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Originally given in 1912 as a gift from Yukio Ozaki, then the mayor of Tokyo, to U.S. President William Howard Taft and his wife, Helen “Nellie” Taft, the trees have come to symbolize the enduring policy of diplomacy and friendship between the United States and Japan.

This year marks the centennial celebration of the planting of those cherry trees, and the city is about to host a month of events from March 20 to April 27. Diana Mayhew, the president of the National Cherry Blossom Association, which is responsible for organizing the event, said that while the festival is historical, this year it will also reset the stage for the nation’s relationship with Japan for the next 100 years.

“This year’s festival will inspire the next generation by engaging youth in programs to help ensure the legacy of the gift of trees,” said Mayhew, who went on to explain that the legacy equates to something much more than the beautiful trees or the festival — it encompasses “peace, friendship, and cultural understanding.”

The cherry trees have quite a tumultuous history. When the First Lady Taft felt that the Tidal Basin needed landscaping, Eliza Scidmore, a journalist who had visited Japan many times, and David Fairchild, a botanist who had imported trees from Yokohama, used the opportunity to suggest Japanese flowering cherry trees. Helen Taft, who had admired such blossoms on her numerous visits to Japan, agreed.

At that time, Jokichi Takamine, a chemist known for discovering adrenaline, was living in New York and visiting Washington. When he heard that the first lady wanted cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, he offered to donate 2,000 trees from Japan. Koichi Mizuno, the Japanese consul-general in New York, then proposed to make this donation an official gift from the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki — the man now often referred to as the “father of the Japanese Constitution.”

A first batch was sent in 1910, but an inspection revealed that the trees had become diseased and infested with insects. Not to be deterred, another batch of 3,020 trees was sent in 1912. These were ceremoniously planted by Helen Taft and Iwa Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. Since then, more trees have been donated to beautify Washington, including 3,800 given to the First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, in 1965.

During World War II, the cherry-blossom festival was suspended, and some of the trees were destroyed after the Pearl Harbor bombings. To avoid further destruction, the trees were renamed “Oriental cherry trees.” By 1947, however, the festival was back in full swing with 450,000 attending. And in 1954, Japan gave Washington a gift of a 300-year-old lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Treaty of Peace and Amity between the U.S. and Japan. Even now, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is officially opened with the lighting of the lantern.

The festival has grown steadily in size and popularity — last year more than a million people attended over a two-week period, generating approximately $126 million in revenue for the city. Surprisingly, of the number of visitors to past festivities, only 5 percent have been Japanese or Japanese-American.

John Malott, President of the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., said that for Americans, the blossoms have also become a “symbol of Spring, rebirth and renewal,” adding that locals feel that it’s not springtime in America until the cherry trees bloom in Washington.

“It will be like a World’s Fair, but with only one country — Japan,” said Malott about this year’s festival. “It is really remarkable that the biggest Japanese festival in the U.S. is right here in Washington, and not in Los Angeles or New York, where there are greater Japanese populations.”

This year, festivities will include several Japan-related exhibitions. The National Geographic Museum will host “Samurai: The Warrior Transformed” (March 7-Sept.); the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will focus on Edo Period painter Kano Kazunobu with “Masters of Mercy, Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” (March 10- July 8) and on Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (March 24-June 17), the National Museum of Art, meanwhile, will present “Colorful Real: Japanese Bird and Flower paintings,” a set of 30 scrolls by Ito Jakuchu (March 30-April 29).

Highlights for the centennial include the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, the Sakura Matsuri street festival and the South West Fireworks Festival with fireworks from Nagaoka in Niigata Prefecture. Tamio Mori, mayor of Nagaoka, described the fireworks as an expression of the desire for world peace, as well as a thank you for the generosity of those who offered help and support after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Although the “tradition” of Japan-style drinking isn’t allowed in The National Park, according to Diana Mayhew, this doesn’t deter visitors from enjoying the pink blossoms.

“The National Park Service provides a variety of jogging and lantern-lit tours,” she said. And of course, “People can still picnic under the trees at the tidal basin.”

For more information, visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.


Remembering the Great East Japan Earthquake

Elsewhere in the United States, during the runup to Washington, D.C.’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Japan Society in New York has scheduled a series of events for the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

Since the disaster last year, The Japan Society in New York has donated $5.6 million to 13 nonprofit organizations in Japan via the society’s Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. Beneficiaries have included those at the forefront of relief, recovery and reconstruction in Tohoku and groups helping to revitalize the economy, offer mental-health care and provide child welfare.

The society’s program, from March 6-20, features a photo exhibition; talks by the Ambassador of Japan in New York, Shigeki Hiroki, as well as by company senior executives from Nomura, Hitachi, Toyota and the Japan External Trade Organization; and panel discussions with renowned U.S. and Japanese playwrights on plays that were written in response to the disasters, and to raise awareness of the continuing needs of Japan.

An array of related documentaries, including Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” are also being screened.

“Events, including one where ‘Happy Dolls’ are being made and sent to Tohoku, and another at which children in New York can view artwork made by children in the disaster-struck areas, will allow kids to express their feelings of grief and show their desire to help bring about hope,” said Kuniko Shiobara of the Japan Society. “We hope to show the creativity, strength and optimism that many children from those regions still have, despite their continuing hardship.”