NEW YORK – Until The New York Times pointed it out earlier this month, I had failed to notice, alas, that Tokyo had given cherry trees to this city as it did to Washington, D.C., 100 years ago (“Gifts From Japan, Less Celebrated in Manhattan,” April 12).
I had known about the cherry trees in the nation’s capital for some years, but it’s only recently that I began to see, online, The Washington Post write about their imminent blossoming — yes, just as the Japanese media report on the “sakura front”: providing day-to-day forecasts as spring warmth creeps north.
This shows, I marveled, how times have changed. If I can trust my memory to any extent, not long after arriving here four decades ago, I read that some American horticulturalists regarded cherry trees as arboreal “weeds” that suck up all the nutrients from the soil and enfeeble all the others. No wonder, I thought, the cherry trees in Central Park looked somewhat unkempt. Now I see the real reason was different.
As the Times reported, even as the more than 3,000 cherry trees for Washington were planted en masse, the 2,500 trees for New York City were dispersed across Upper Manhattan — nearly a third of them, or 764 trees, near Grant’s Tomb alone, according to the 1912 annual report of the City’s Department of Parks. Also, whereas the trees along the Potomac River were well tended over the years, those in Manhattan were not. Most of the trees west of Grant’s Tomb, for example, were removed in the 1930s for renovation despite the fact that the area, Claremont Park, had been renamed Sakura Park and Grove.
The question is: Why such extravagant gifts to foreign cities? After all, when the U.S. decided on a return gift three years later, it gave Tokyo just 40 dogwood trees — a fair international botanical gift, one would think, in normal circumstances.
The answer, partly, is that they were a gesture of gratitude.
The idea of bringing cherry trees to the United States first came from people who simply admired cherry blossoms. Among them was Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a world traveler and the first female member of the National Geographic Society.
But when Yukio Ozaki, the mayor of Tokyo — a city at the time — learned of this, and that first lady Helen Taft was involved, he pulled out all the stops. He had been searching for some way of conveying Japan’s gratitude to the U.S.: President Theodore Roosevelt, serving as arbiter of the Russo-Japanese War, had made Japan the victor.
Ozaki’s first attempt failed. The shipment of 2,000 trees to Washington, in 1909, had to be burned on arrival as they were found infested with insects. The shipment to New York in the same year was lost at sea: The ship carrying it sank.
Ozaki did not give up. He instructed scientists to develop insect-free cherry saplings. Thousands of farmers helped. It worked.
All “the many rare varieties having beautiful blossoms” were “very hardy,” New York City’s annual report stated, “as proved by their condition on arrival, after a journey of nearly three months, closely packed in the cases which were stored in the steamship hold in transit.”
But by the spring of 1912 when the planting ceremonies were held in Washington and New York, politics — domestic and international — had largely overtaken Japan’s gratitude to the U.S.
As early as March 1907, Roosevelt, who had conferred “victory” on Japan just a year and a half earlier, banned Japanese laborers’ entry to this country.
The resentment of Japanese fishermen and immigrants on the West Coast had gotten out of control.
Japan’s “victory” itself had fanned fear of the Yellow Peril. Books imagining a Japanese invasion of the U.S., such as “Banzai!” by Ferdinand Heinrich Grautoff and “The Valor of Ignorance” by Homer Lea, appeared by the end of the decade.
That’s why, during the planting ceremony near Grant’s Tomb, on April 28, 1912, Japanese Consul General Yasutaro Numano warned of warmongers. “The occasional voice of an alarmist is heard proclaiming the danger of the war between the two countries,” The New York Times reported him as saying.
The war, as we all know, came, three decades later. In it, the cherry blossoms played a fateful role as the symbol of a brief but beautiful life, youth illuminating its worth before scattering away. In fact, the idea that cherry blossoms were singularly Japanese had taken hold years before that.
Yukika, Yukio Ozaki’s third daughter, recalled, for example, how her elementary schoolteacher pointedly said in class, “The cherry blossoms are the soul of Japan, but there’s a fellow who sold them to a foreign country.” Yukika was born in the year the cherry trees were planted in Washington and New York.
Her father, a popular, distinguished politician later called “the deity of constitutional governance,” had not “sold” the trees to the U.S., but in the teacher’s eyes, he had betrayed his country by giving them to aliens.
The great classical scholar Yoshio Yamada was alarmed by the overt manifestations of these sentiments in the 1930s. He had written a history of the Japanese love of cherry blossoms, meticulously citing poems and other paeans from the start of Japanese literature to modern times. His chronicle included the destruction of many fine cherry groves in the early part of the Meiji Era regime when the day’s zeal was Westernization. Everything extolled in Japanese tradition had to be condemned.
In any case, the Japanese had seldom, if ever, admired cherry blossoms for their transient beauty, Yamada argued. They were enchanted by their hallucinatory abundance. That — the classicist did not say this — was probably why Mayor Ozaki, when he decided to give cherry trees to Washington and New York, gave thousands of them, all at once.
Yamada may have been particularly aggravated by a ditty the French professor turned songwriter Yaso Saijo published in 1938. In it, air corps classmates make a vow to each other:
We’re cherry blossoms having bloomed,
we’re determined to scatter.
We’ll scatter spectacularly
for our country’s sake.
Yamada’s scholarly protests were to no avail. By then it was too late. Saijo’s ditty, with the music Nosho Omura composed for it the following year, went on to become an exceedingly popular military song.
How many young lives were wasted as a result, we do not know.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” will appear in the fall.