Chidorigafuchi, a moat northwest of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, was packed with people trying to catch a glimpse of the magnificent cherry blossoms in early April, as in every year.
“This is like a dream, it’s too good to be true,” Eiichi Niihori, 82, whispered repeatedly to himself as he squeezed through the crowds. “To see this many people coming here to enjoy and be impressed by the sakura (cherry), I’m content even if I were to die tomorrow.”
The moat was a desolated gravel pit for sometime after Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945 — the time when people had no place for flowers amid an impoverished society.
But Kiyoshi Murase, mayor of Chiyoda Ward at the time, decided to plant trees along the moat, believing greenery and parks would be important in the future as the nation recovered from the war.
Niihori, then in his 20s and a staffer at the ward, was assigned with his co-workers to be in charge of the park, planting Japanese native Somei Yoshino cherry trees there around 1955. He took care of the trees for years until his retirement, and served as a guide even after that.
Seventy years on since the end of the war, Chidorigafuchi is now one of Tokyo’s most popular sakura viewing spots.
The Japanese have loved the spring explosion of sakura blossoms for hundreds of years. With the flowers abruptly blooming and the petals falling quickly, the popularity is often explained that people associate sakura with mortal human life.
Sakura are also served as a symbol of friendship from Japan.
In 1912, when relations between Japan and the United States were relatively good after the Russo-Japanese War, then-Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki presented cherry tree saplings to Washington D.C. and the city of New York.
Three years later, the United States reciprocated with a gift of 40 saplings of flowering dogwood, a native species from North America, along with seeds for Tokyo. They were named Amerika Yamaboshi in Japanese.
The saplings were distributed across Tokyo, including at Hibiya Park, the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens and Nogata nursery.
During wartime Japan, however, sakura became the symbol of something very different — an icon to prop up nationalism and militarism and to inspire people’s “fighting spirit.” The Ohka rocket-powered kamikaze suicide attack planes, for example, carried the name that means cherry blossoms in Japanese.
Dogwood trees from the United States, meanwhile, were forgotten, with some of them chopped down during the war, as they were deemed “trees of the enemy.” Records on the whereabouts of the majority of the original dogwoods have been lost.
Komei Saguchi, 85, recalled that the dogwood saplings were never a discussion topic while he was a student during and after the war at the Tokyo Metropolitan Engei Gakko, the current Tokyo Metropolitan Horticultural High School.
“I guess that was because we were all trying as hard as possible to find food to fill our stomachs, rather than looking at flowers,” he said.
By the 1970s when dogwoods began to become a popular choice as roadside trees in Japan, Saguchi, who had become a teacher at his alma mater, learned for the first time that there was an original dogwood tree planted at the Engei school.
The average life span of a dogwood is about 80 years. Currently, the one at Engei school is the only surviving original dogwood that has been located.
Since the original dogwood trees arrived in Japan, it has been 100 years. To commemorate that, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy visited the school, bringing 26 new samplings on April 10.
“These trees represent a continuing expression of the friendship which binds the two countries and will blossom far into the future,” Kennedy said.
Encouraging the students to make good use of their knowledge and passion to play a leading role in society, the ambassador added, “One day, 100 years from now, another American ambassador will come to this school and hear about all the great things you have accomplished.”