LONDON – Over a dozen ginkgo tree saplings have been sent to Japan from Pembrokeshire, a location noted for its remarkable history in Wales’ long-standing ties with Japan.
The tree the 15 saplings came from is said to have been donated in 1877 by Japanese envoy to Britain Kagenori Ueno as a symbol of gratitude upon the launch of the Japanese warship Hiei from Pembroke Dock.
Also present at the launch was Lt. Heihachiro Togo, who was studying in Wales at the time and oversaw its construction. Togo was staying at the master shipwright’s house, where the ginkgo sapling was planted in a garden.
Togo returned to Japan on the Hiei and went on to lead Japanese forces to victory at the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War, for which he became known as the “Nelson of the East.”
Togo’s link to Wales led residents to dub the fully grown tree “Togo’s Ginkgo.”
The plan to send the saplings was the brainchild of local historian and resident David James, 81, who first heard the story of the Hiei as a young boy from his father.
James previously headed efforts to create a memorial for the crew and passengers of the cargo ship Hirano Maru. The liner, owned by shipping firm Nippon Yusen, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in October 1918, just over a month before the end of World War I.
According to James, the idea for the ginkgo project initially came from a chance encounter with Ken Matsui, a retired Air Self-Defense Force major general now living in Wales. Matsui learned of the tree’s existence from James, and the two came up with a plan to share its story.
The saplings were raised by the staff of the National Botanic Garden of Wales for two years until they were strong enough to be transported by air with support from Nippon Yusen.
According to a source, microorganisms, soil and even the leaves of the saplings must be completely removed before transport for quarantine purposes. They were placed in a special box that can supply them with water for more than 10 days.
Ayshea Cunniffe-Thomas, the horticulturist who headed the ginkgo team, said, “The more I looked into it and read about Adm. Togo, I realized what an honor it was to be asked to participate.”
Cunniffe-Thomas added that it was “nerve-wracking” to be charged with raising the plants, but that they had made excellent progress and she looked forward to following their journey and hopefully visiting them at their new homes in Japan.
The cuttings were taken to Hiroshima Botanical Garden last month to be cared for until spring. They will then be distributed to sites around Japan, including current or former military ports, such as Kagoshima, where Togo was born, and Togo Jinja, a Tokyo shrine dedicated to the late admiral.
James said he felt “elated, excited and interested” about the trees going to Japan. “This project has exceeded beyond my wildest expectations; it’s wonderful,” he said.
James was awarded a commendation by Japanese Ambassador to Britain Yasumasa Nagamine in recognition of his efforts.