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Japan’s flower-power diplomacy

by Shihoko Goto

Contributing Writer

When it comes to winning hearts and minds in springtime, it’s almost impossible to beat Japan’s influence in Washington. The gift of over 3,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo to the U.S. capital to symbolize the friendship between the two sides in 1912 is the gift that keeps on giving.

The fact that the cherry trees were never cut down, even at the height of anti-Japanese fervor during World War II, is an all-too familiar historical factoid in U.S. history. And for a few weeks in the U.S. capital, it’s impossible to escape the onslaught of pink petals, used to promote everything from T-shirts to seasonal pink cocktails to limited-offer hotel packages.

It’s no doubt the busiest time for the cultural attaches at the Japanese embassy, coordinating activities for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which goes on this year until April 15.

The extended exposure that Japan enjoys each year as a result of the cherry blossoms is the envy of the other embassies in Washington, as each vie to have even a fraction of the feel-good publicity that comes with the festivities. It’s a tremendous advantage at a time when public diplomacy is taking on a greater role in shaping not just perceptions, but also increasingly foreign policy itself.

As Japan’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States, Shinsuke Sugiyama, settles into his new role, the blooming trees should be a tremendous asset as he ensures that Tokyo’s economic, security and political concerns are heard in Washington.

Certainly, the cherry blossoms are a huge win for Japan’s public diplomacy compared to China’s panda diplomacy. To be sure, nothing can beat the cuteness of a baby panda and the urge to see a panda cub transcends national boundaries.

Still, panda diplomacy has been a double-edged sword ever since Beijing made clear in 2008 that all pandas sent to zoos overseas belonged to China and were simply on loan to the foreign country. As such, any cub born overseas belonged to the Chinese government, and the baby needed to be returned to China.

At Washington’s National Zoo, for instance, the birth of Bao Bao in 2013 was greeted with great delight and die-hard fans followed every grunt and sigh made by the bear via the “Panda Cam” that the zoo set up and streamed online for the world to monitor the animal’s growth.

When the time came for Bao Bao to be returned to China last year, thousands of schoolchildren wrote to the zoo to protest against their favorite animal from leaving his/her family and the only home she had only known. The sight of children tearfully waiving goodbye to the panda as he was placed in a truck from the zoo to be flown back to China was hardly a diplomatic coup for Beijing.

What’s more, news coverage explaining the rationale behind the Chinese rule of forced return often led to media analysis of China’s authoritarian rule as well.

Granted, cherry blossoms have not been immune from political bashing, either. In recent years, Korean voices claiming that the cherry trees that were brought over from Japan to the United States over a century ago actually originated from Korea’s Jeju Island has gained some traction. While that argument remains a minority view, it has nonetheless become yet another thorny issue further hampering historical reconciliation between the two countries.

It also brings to light the fact that Tokyo and Seoul continue to find it difficult to overcome the challenges of the politicization of historical memory even now, in spite of the need for greater cooperation between the two sides given the real threats facing East Asia.

Concerns about tariffs and broader trade deals, as well as worries about the rapidly changing relationship with North Korea will no doubt be at the top of the agenda when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets U.S. President Donald Trump yet again in Washington next month.

Unlike the previous summit meeting which focused on emphasizing a personal rapport between the two men and common interest between the two countries, the upcoming meeting will need to address the differences between the two sides.

Discussions will no doubt be tense, but public support for U.S.-Japan relations to remain strong should remain high, in no small part to the continued strength of cherry blossom diplomacy.

Shihoko Goto, the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, is a leading expert on economics and politics in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.