Diplomacy flowers with cherry blossoms

At the close of the 100th anniversary celebration of Tokyo's gift of cherry blossoms to Washington, it's worth remembering the story of diplomacy behind the trees. Like most diplomatic initiatives, this one had to overcome indifference, opposition, and many setbacks before it could flower.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Yoriko Fujisaki, (l) wife of the ambassador of Japan to the United States, and First Lady Michelle Obama (r) commemorate the centennial anniversary of the 1912 gift of cherry blossom trees from the city of Tokyo to Washington, D.C. by planting a cherry blossom tree near the Tidal Basin March 27. Op-ed contributor Kumi Yokoe writes that 'the Japanese cherries have been a spectacular success story,' even though 'the initiative started with the efforts of a single, private citizen.'

A century has passed since Tokyo presented 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C. That gift has blossomed into a remarkable public diplomacy success – worth remembering as the National Cherry Blossom Festival draws to a close today.

What began more than 125 years ago as a one-woman campaign to beautify some reclaimed swamp land along the Potomac River has become a rite of spring for Washingtonians and more than a million awed visitors each year.

But like most diplomatic initiatives, this one had to overcome indifference, opposition, and many setbacks before it could reach full flower.

It was Eliza Scidmore who first dreamed of planting Japanese cherry trees along the Tidal Basin abutting the Potomac. She had accompanied her brother, George Scidmore, a career diplomat, on a trip to Japan, where the blossoms’ beauty impressed her deeply.

Upon her return to Washington in 1885, she began pressing her idea of planting Japanese cherries along the Potomac. But the powers that be – in this case, the US Army superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds – wasn’t interested. Nor was his successor. Or the next superintendent.

For a quarter of a century, Eliza Scidmore’s pleadings fell on deaf ears. Until 1909, when she devised a fundraising plan to buy the trees for the city. Following the protocol of the day, she wrote Helen Taft about her intent to redecorate the first lady’s city.

Mrs. Taft had toured Japan 10 years earlier, when her husband was appointed chairman of the United States Commission to the Philippines . She, too, had been struck by the beauty of the trees. She not only liked the plan, she ran with it. [Editor's note: an earlier version incorrectly identified William Howard Taft's position.]

Within a week, the previously disinterested superintendent had ordered 90 Fugenzo trees from a Pennsylvania nursery. More importantly, the Japanese consul in New York got wind of Mrs. Taft’s interest, and inquired, politely, if she would accept a donation of 2,000 trees.

Suddenly, Scidmore’s 25-year campaign was an overnight success. Or so it seemed, until the trees arrived from Tokyo in January 1910. Agriculture Department inspectors found them to be infested and diseased. The trees had to be incinerated.

A hurried exchange of letters between the State Department and Japanese Embassy smoothed over the disappointing developments and fostered a determination to move forward, bigger and better than ever.

Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki offered a second donation – more than 3,000 trees. They arrived in Washington on March 26, 1912. The very next day, the first lady and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees. They flower there to this day.

In the years since, the cherry trees have sparked many goodwill gestures between the two nations. In 1952, the National Park Service shipped budwood from the Tidal Basin plantings back to Tokyo to help restore the grove which had provided the trees 40 years earlier. In 1965, Japan presented Lady Bird Johnson with 3,800 trees to support her beautify Washington initiative. The cycle of giving continues.

And every year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival fosters a growing understanding and appreciation of each nation’s culture. For example, featured performers at this year’s opening ceremony included Grammy-nominated musician Sara Bereilles. A new documentary about her experience volunteering in Japan was screened the night before at the Japan Information and Culture Center. Another artist performing at the opening ceremony was Misia, one of Japan’s most popular female vocalists, whose musical roots are grounded in American R&B.

Such cultural cross-fertilization has continued through this year’s extended (five week-long) festival. Among the many Japanese artists entertaining this year was AKB48, an insanely popular idol group. And the National Gallery of Art is hosting a special exhibition of works by Jakuchu Itoh, an 18th century Japanese painter. His paintings are rarely seen, even in Japan. Yet the imperial household made its complete, 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower pictures – never before exhibited in their entirety outside of Japan – available to commemorate the centennial of the first plantings.

While the cherry blossoms can open our eyes to the richness of both nations’ cultures, they also reveal a difference in how Japanese and Americans experience cherry blossoms – and, to some measure – life itself.

The Japanese tend to settle in. They spread out blankets and pack huge picnic baskets with rice ball, Japanese-style fried chicken, omelets, and drinks. There, in the shade, they leisurely consume the treats under the blooming canopy. Some will even camp overnight to reserve a good spot for their colleagues. 

Americans, however, typically walk along the paths – glancing left and right to take in all the sights. They experience the pink panorama as a moveable feast for the eyes. Often their pace is swift, as though afraid that, through dawdling, they might run out of time – or daylight – before seeing every last tree.

Yet, no matter how one experiences the cherry blossoms, there is no doubt that they are part of Washington. The blooms are as iconic as the landmarks they frame – the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Memorials. The glorious gift from Tokyo seamlessly connects, embraces, and blends into American history.

As public diplomacy, the Japanese cherries have been a spectacular success story. Even though the initiative started with the efforts of a single, private citizen. And even though the Japanese to this day have no word for the term “public diplomacy.”

As the cherry blossom festival ends today, one wonders, “What will the next 100 years hold?” Certainly the world has no shortage of troubled spots that could use an oasis of peace, a glimpse of exotic beauty, a setting for serenity.

Perhaps over the next century Washington and Tokyo will embark on some collaborative public diplomacy, bringing this “Loveliest of trees,” as the poet A. E. Housman dubbed the cherry, to former conflict zones where peoples now strive to preserve peace.

Kumi Yokoe, Ph.D., is a senior visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and one of Japan’s leading authorities on the US.

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