Exactly 100 years ago on March 27, 1912 in a small private ceremony, First Lady Helen Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two Japanese Cherry Blossom, or Sakura, trees, in a secluded corner of Washington, DC. Despite its lack of fanfare public fanfare, the ceremony, and the gift of 3,200 sakura trees from the City of Tokyo to the Nation’s Capital as a symbol of friendship between the two countries, was significant to those in attendance.
Both the Tafts and Chindas had previous ties to the other’s nations: President William Howard Taft was popular in Japan for his role while serving as Secretary of War in negotiating the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War, and Ambassador Sutemi Chinda had studied in Indiana as a young man. For Eliza Scidmore, first female board member of the National Geographic society, bringing the Japanese cherry blossoms to Washington it was the realization of a 25 year old dream. It was US Army Col. Spencer Crosby, who was in charge of the public grounds and buildings in the city, however, who foresaw the significance of the trees extending beyond the personal ties of the assembly. As he wrote to Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki, “In a few years, this will undoubtedly be one of the famous sights of Washington, and a constant reminder to our citizens of the kindly feeling of your city and country.”
Fast-forward 100 years and Col. Crosby’s words ring true. The two original trees that were planted that day still stand, along with over 3,750 of their brethren, and are the focal point of one of Washington, DC’s, largest celebrations; the National Cherry Blossom Festival (NCBF). In celebration of the sakura centennial, the annual event has been extended from 2 weeks to 5 weeks, and is filled with over 100 festival events celebrating the coming of spring and the friendship between the United States and Japan. The city expects to welcome over 1 million visitors over the course of the celebration with an economic impact of $200 million―in a typical year the cherry blossoms and the festival generate $126 million in revenue. While warm weather caused the blossoms to bloom and fade unusually early this year, the festivities will continue with events such as musical acts, cultural exhibitions, a 10-mile race, and the Sakura Matsuri, the largest Japanese street festival in the US.
For the first time, official NCBF festivities have reached Japan itself. Metlife-Alico, a major corporate supporter of the 2012 NCBF Centennial Celebration, in part because Japan is the company’s largest overseas market, is recreating in Tokyo some of the signature festival events such as a gala pink-tie party. It is also organizing special fundraising events to purchase cherry blossom trees to be planted in disaster devastated communities in Tohoku, some of which will be descendants of those sent to Washington 100 years ago.
Deep rooted exchanges have blossomed from the original 1912 gift. The sakura that now stand in Washington originate from cuttings from a famous collection of trees that lined the banks of the Arakawa River in Tokyo. In 1952 those trees were ailing after the war; to help restore them the National Park Service sent budwood from the DC trees. In 1962 the Japanese government made another gift of 3,800 cherry blossom trees, though these ones were grown in America. Exchanges of the plant stock continued as botanists in both countries worked to keep the genetic line of the original trees alive. In 1982 American and Japanese school children collected and exchanged over 2 million seeds in the “Friendship in Flowers” project organized by the US National Arboretum and the Flower Association of Japan. In that same year, 800 cuttings from the DC trees were sent to Tokyo to replace sakura that had been damaged by flooding. In 1996 the two countries signed an agreement that made the Arakawa and the Potomac sister rivers.
This year, the celebration of 100 years the gift of the cherry blossoms is not limited to Washington, DC. In addition to plans to enhance the original planting site with a Japanese garden this spring and promote educational exchanges and cultural events, the Japanese government has launched a nationwide cherry blossom tree planting initiative in the US. As current Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki explained in his speech at the NCBF Opening Ceremony, the concept is to extend the sakura connection beyond the capital cities, “from all Japan to all America.” Thirty-six American cities across the country have been selected to receive young sakura trees, which will be planted in ceremonies throughout the spring. The US government is also making preparations to return the flower favor in kind. In 1915 the US sent forty flowering Dogwood trees, native to the America, to Tokyo in gratitude for the cherry blossom gift. Today, reports indicate that the US government is drawing up plans to send 3,000 trees this year in commemoration of thecentennial. Whichever the blossom, such gifts are sure serve as enduring reminders of the friendship between the US and Japan.