A Tale of Two Cities and Three Thousand Cherry Trees

Washington DC's famous cherry trees line the tidal basin.

-Susan Laszewski
Embassy of Japan

How many people does it take to get some cherry trees planted? A lot, as it turns out.

Everyone knows that the famous Washington, DC cherry trees were a gift from the city of Tokyo, but few are familiar with the details. On March 25th, the JICC was pleased to welcome Ambassador John R. Malott, President and CEO of the Japan-America Society of Washington DC, to share those details in his lecture entitled "Mrs. Taft Plants a Tree: How the Cherry Blossoms Came to Washington." The event proved to be a popular one. The auditorium was bursting at the seams with history buffs, flower lovers, those with an interest in Japan, and many who just love a good story.

For while he may be an expert in Japan and Asian affairs, having held such positions during his 31 years with the Foreign Service as US Consul General in Osaka and US Ambassador to Malaysia, Ambassador Malott is also a master story teller. The tale he wove included an intricate cast of characters, each of whom brought their own small piece of the puzzle to the delicate web of circumstances that led to the journey of 3000 trees from Tokyo to Washington DC and, ultimately, helped to create the Washington that we know and love today.

The trees alone do not complete the scene of the tidal basin lined with pink each spring. Any city might have 3,000 cherry trees - in fact Macon, Georgia has 300,000. It is the monuments in the backdrop and the overall site that make this view both memorable and unmistakably Washingtonian. But the city was not always as we know it today.

Just before the turn of the century, as Washington approached its 100th anniversary, some of the country's best architects and designers came together in what was known as the City Beautiful Movement. Their aim was to realize the vision of Washington that Pierre L'Enfant had presented to the founding fathers all those years ago - a vision L'Enfant himself was never able to realize due to differences with Thomas Jefferson and others. Before the City Beautiful Movement, Washington was what Charles Dickens referred to as "the city of magnificent intentions": L'Enfant's vision was incomplete and the national mall and tidal basin did not even exist. The efforts of the City Beautiful Movement brought Washington closer to the city we know today and set the stage for the cherry blossoms.

In the midst of the city's beautification, several advocates were struggling to realize their dream of having some cherry trees planted in Washington. Eliza Scidmore, the first woman writer for the National Geographic Society, was a woman with a passion for Japanese cherry trees and a 24-year determination to see some in her nation's capitol city. David Fairchild, whom Ambassador Malott calls the "Indiana Jones of the plant world," was the first to plant cherry trees in Washington - right in his own yard in Chevy Chase. He wasn't content to stop there, though, and joined Miss Scidmore in her efforts. Meanwhile, First Lady Helen Taft was preparing to leave her mark on the nation's capitol. On the heels of the City Beautiful Movement, she was planning an outdoor recreation area in what we know today as Potomac Park. Taft, who had visited Japan a number of times, decided that she wanted to plant cherry blossoms there. The first lady put things in motion and arranged for a small shipment of cherry trees from Pennsylvania.

As everyone knows, though, the story can't end there. After all, this is a tale of two cities. The trees we are most familiar with came from Tokyo, not Pennsylvania. Ambassador Malott's story continues as he introduces us to the trees' supporters on the Tokyo side.

Jokichi Takamine may not be a familiar name, but modern medicine would not be the same without him. This Japanese businessman who made his home in New York City is known for having discovered epinephrine (the "epi" in epi-pen), a hormone doctors today rely on for a range of procedures. While in Washington for a meeting, he provided not only the idea, but also the money, to bring the cherry trees to the area directly from Japan.

However, Mr. Takamine didn't feel it was prudent for the gift to come from him - a businessman and private citizen. Nor did it seem prudent to try to arrange for the gift to be one from Japan to the U.S, given the political climate at the time. In both countries "there was a growing belief," as Ambassador Malott put it, "that one day we would be at war with each other."

And so, to avoid becoming entangled in any political controversy, Takamine took his idea to Mayor Ozaki of Tokyo, a political friend to the United States, and arranged instead for a gift between cities. The City Beautiful Movement, the "cherry tree advocates," the first lady, a Japanese businessman, and the mayor of Tokyo. If all these individuals had not come together as they did, we would never have had the cherry-clad view of the tidal basin that is one of the prides of Washington.

After an initial shipment of 2,000 trees that turned out to be pest-infested, Takamine arranged for a second shipment of 3,000. The healthy trees arrived in Washington on March 26, 1912. An eager Helen Taft planted the first one the very next day.

Chapters continue to be added to this story even today. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is the largest Japanese festival in the world, outside Japan. It has been bringing visitors to the Washington, DC each year since 1935 to admire the blossoms and celebrate the Japan-U.S. relationship which they have come to stand for.

But, of course, that is not all the blossoms represent. The significance of cherry blossoms can change from culture to culture, person to person, or even moment to moment. In Japan, the blossoms most traditionally inspire thoughts on the evanescence of life and beauty, blooming as they do for such a short time, then fluttering away before our very eyes. Ambassador Malott offers another interpretation for Washingtonians: "The blossoms come back to us every year, no matter what the state of our economy... No matter what language you speak, whether you're Japanese or American or from any other country...The blossoms belong to all of us - they are universal." "A symbol of life - of rebirth - and renewal." So if you missed the blossoms (or the festival) this year, there's always next.


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