The stunning cherry trees of Washington, D.C., a gift from Japan that blossom spectacularly each spring in a cherished symbol of renewal, were planted by first lady Helen Herron Taft and other dignitaries on this day in history, March 27, 1912.
“The blossoms are officially in peak bloom!” the National Cherry Blossom Festival enthused in an online announcement Thursday, marking the eagerly anticipated highlight of spring tourism season in the nation’s capital.
Opening ceremonies of the annual festival, which takes place this year through April 16, were held Saturday.
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The original shipment of 3,020 cherry trees, representing 12 different varieties of the flowering fruit trees, arrived in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1912 — a living symbol of goodwill from the people of Tokyo presented by Mayor Yukio Ozaki
Officials wasted no time in planting them in a spot of national prestige around the Tidal Basin the following day.
Mayor Ozaki was joined in the ceremony by officials from both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
“The first lady and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the ambassador of Japan, planted the first two trees on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, a location that today is memorialized with a simple bronze plaque at the Japanese Stone Lantern Plaza,” according to the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
“Cherry blossoms, known in Japan as sakura, are well known around the world for their radiant, delicate and transient beauty.” — Japan National Tourism Organization
The effort to beautify Washington, D.C., with cherry trees was championed by Eliza Ruhaham Scidmore, a journalist, photographer and cognoscente of Asian cultures.
Among other claims to fame, she was the first woman to serve on the board of directors of the National Geographic Society.
“Cherry blossoms, known in Japan as sakura, are well known around the world for their radiant, delicate and transient beauty,” reports the Japan National Tourism Organization.
“However, they are more than simply beautiful trees, as sakura have strong ties to Japan’s history, culture and identity.”
The U.S. National Park Service says, “For more than 100 years, (the U.S. and Japan) have celebrated cherry trees blooming in solidarity.”
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The two nations enjoyed strong relations at the start of the 20th century.
The United States, among other examples of the state of the relationship, supported Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. American shipyards built warships for Japan during the conflict.
The Taft-Katsura Agreement was negotiated after the war between then Secretary of War William H. Taft and Prime Minister of Japan Katsura Taro. It was a statement of joint interests in the Pacific Ocean.
The solidarity represented by the cherry trees planted a few short years after the agreement, during the Taft administration, was torn apart violently by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the savage attack.
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The cherry trees in Washington, D.C., became an obvious target of America’s rage as it was thrust into World War II.
“On the night of Dec. 10, 1941, an unknown number of vandals cut down four of the trees on the west side of the Basin,” the National Park Service notes.
“The United States and Japan gradually became friends again, and nowadays, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is a major annual event.” — National Park Service
“Two of the trees were original 1912 specimens. One tree was also marked with ‘To Hell With the Japanese.’”
The Cherry Blossom Festival was canceled from 1942 to 1947 while Washington, D.C., became the brain center of the Allied war effort.
Adds the National Park Service, “Many people insisted on re-naming the trees as ‘Oriental’ Cherry Trees. Customers complained if stores carried Japanese merchandise. The Freer Gallery of Art hid away all its Japanese works of art.”
Tokyo, which 33 years earlier gave the United States its now-cherished cherry trees, was devastated by U.S. forces in a massive bombing raid in early March 1945.
The ensuing firestorm killed an estimated 100,000 people and proved the deadliest bombing raid of World War II, with more casualties than the atomic bombings of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The beautiful cherry trees of Washington, D.C., again became a symbol of international unity, hopes of peace and a shared love of natural beauty after the war, as the nations worked to overcome the human tragedy of armed conflict.
“After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the United States and Japan gradually became friends again, and nowadays, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is a major annual event,” writes the National Park Service.
“There has been no further vandalism to the trees, except from the occasional beaver.”