Blooms tell curious tale of two cities

One woman's vision and a mystery cable took hanami to D.C.

by Mimi Le Bourgeois

Ninet years ago, on March 27, 1912, passersby on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. may have been surprised to see two elegant ladies digging holes. They may have been even more surprised had they known that the women were Helen Taft, wife of U.S. President William Howard Taft, and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of Japan’s ambassador to the United States, planting the first of 3,000 cherry trees given to Washington by the city of Tokyo.

From this improbable beginning, today’s groves of sakura in the U.S. capital have become the most beautiful and durable symbol of Japanese-American friendship.

In fact the first person to promote the planting of cherry trees in Washington was Eliza Scidmore, a travel writer who, while living in Japan in 1885, fell in love with the cherry blossoms she saw there. She especially admired a grove in Mukojima on the east side of the Sumida River in Tokyo, where ordinary citizens thronged to enjoy hanami. In her book, “Jinrikisha Days in Japan,” she reported: “Men dance like satyrs, cup and gourd in hand, natural actors, orators, and pantomimists every one of them.

“But, with all this intoxication, only glee and affection manifest themselves. The laughter is so infectious, the antics and figures so comical, that even sober people seem to have tasted of the insane cup.”

Those trees whose blooms so delighted Tokyoites were planted on drained marshland in the 18th century by Shogun Yoshimune as part of his campaign to beautify the city. No doubt it occurred to Scidmore that, like Tokyo, Washington has a mild climate and is built on a marshy flood plain at the mouth of a river. So, five years after her return, when army engineers began reclaiming land to create Potomac Park, she advised the superintendent of the Potomac Grounds, “that since they had to plant something in the great stretch of raw reclaimed ground by the river bank to hide those old dump heaps, they might as well plant that most beautiful thing in the world — the Japanese cherry tree.”

The superintendent ignored her, but Scidmore was determined. Already her vivid writing on Alaska had contributed to a threefold increase in tourism there, and led to Scidmore Glacier being named after her. But after 20 fruitless years she gave up on getting government funding for her cherry trees and instead set out to raise the money herself by asking for “annual dollar subscriptions from every traveler I could think of who had seen the sakuras (cherries) in their glory in springtime in Japan.” She also found a strong ally in David Fairchild, head of the office of plant introduction in the department of agriculture.

Unlike Scidmore, Fairchild had a budget: It was his job to import plants from abroad. Moreover, he had visited Japan in 1902 and met Magozaemon Takagi, whose father had saved many rare varieties of cherry trees threatened in the frenzy of Meiji-Era modernization. After seeing color sketches of the blossoms in Takagi’s collection, Fairchild wrote: “I have rarely been so thrilled, for I had had no idea of the wealth of beauty, form and color of the flowering cherries.”

So it was that Fairchild ordered a selection of cherry trees from Takagi to test them in Washington’s climate. Then in 1908 he ordered one for every public school in Washington for boys to plant on Arbor Day in spring. In a lecture he gave to celebrate the occasion, he also appealed for a “Field of Cherries” to be planted in West Potomac Park. Eliza Scidmore was in the audience cheering him on.

Soon after President Taft’s inauguration in 1909, Scidmore wrote to the first lady asking her to help in raising money for Japanese cherry trees to be planted in Potomac Park. Scidmore knew that Helen Taft had admired cherry blossoms during time spent in Japan while her husband was Governor of the Philippines. Three days later, on April 7, the new president’s wife wrote back, saying: “Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees.

“I have taken the matter up [with Fairchild] and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. 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.”

Events then moved quickly. As luck would have it, there were many Japanese in Washington that week for a celebration to affirm Japanese-American friendship. Jokichi Takamine, a famous chemist living in New York, was there with New York’s Japanese consul, Kokichi Mizuno. With talk of cherry-tree fundraising in the air, Takamine at once offered to donate 2,000 specimens himself, whereupon Mizuno suggested that the donation be made in the name of the City of Tokyo. Mizuno asked Scidmore to sound out Helen Taft as to whether she would accept a gift of cherry trees offered by the City of Tokyo.

Then, on April 18, this heretofore straightforward tale of U.S.-Japan pleasantries took its first intriguing twist, when the New York Times reported that “a cablegram had been received from the Mayor of Tokio, Japan, offering as a gift 1,000 flowering Japanese cherry trees to be planted along the new drive. The President and Mrs. Taft were much pleased with this, and have accepted the offer with thanks.”

Fine sentiments, indeed — except that Ozaki Yukio, the mayor of Tokyo (or even Tokio), could not have been authorized in only 10 days to offer an international gift, as he would have been regarded as exceeding his authority.

So, was the cablegram authentic?

Possibly it wasn’t, but was hastily conjured up in Japanese diplomatic or political circles to seize on the trees as a way to ease relations between the two countries at a time when China was weak and other countries were eager to carve it up.

Although the U.S. helped Japan boot Russia out of Manchuria in 1904, Japan’s postwar domination of that vast region had given Washington the jitters, and even prompted the dispatch of a battle fleet to the Pacific to enforce its open-door policy in China. By 1909, though, many events were being held in both countries in an effort to smooth over antagonisms.

However, in his autobiography, newly translated into English by his granddaughter, Fujiko Hara, the then mayor of Tokyo throws no clear light on the cablegram mystery. Instead, Ozaki simply explains his reasons for sponsoring the cherry trees, saying: “The United States of America, especially, its unique humanitarian spirit stirred by the spectacle of the small but gallant island nation hurled into war with its giant neighbor, loudly praised the courage of the Japanese people, and its sympathy towards Japan was boundless.”

In America, meanwhile, Takamine is often credited with paying for the cherry trees — though this clearly wasn’t necessary. The New York Times, again ahead of the story, announced the gift five days before the Board of Tokyo City Councilors approved it, on August 25, 1909.

As it happened, the first batch of trees sent to Washington proved to be diseased and they were promptly burned. Embarrassed U.S. officials were reluctant to tell Ozaki, but he reacted with humor: “To be honest about it, it has been an American tradition to destroy cherry trees ever since your first president, George Washington! So there’s nothing to worry about. In fact you should be feeling proud!”

After that glitch, a new batch of 12 varieties was successfully raised in sterile beds, and it was two of these — of the popular Somei Yoshino variety — that Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda planted as Scidmore and Fairchild watched with a small group. The city of Tokyo paid for those as well.

But all this is not just history, because to this day Tokyo and Washington periodically send cuttings back and forth, fostering the mutual friendship. As well, the Arakawa River in Tokyo and the Potomac in Washington have been officially designated “sister rivers.”

Upon Eliza’s death in 1928, some of her ashes were buried in the Foreigners’ Cemetery in Yokohama, while some of her pictures have recently appeared in “Women Photographers at the National Geographic,” published in 2000. Meanwhile, whatever the true machinations at the time, many history books now unfairly accord Ozaki sole credit for the gift, though in truth the suggestion was undoubtedly Takamine’s and Mizuno’s, made for diplomatic purposes.

Potomac Park’s lovely cherry trees may have been the brainchild of one woman attempting to beautify the city, but that brainchild came to fruition as an effort to resolve differences between two countries testing their relative positions in the world. There will always be differences, but those amazing pink blossoms will also continue their annual renewal on the banks of the Potomac.