Dogwood diplomacy: US gift of trees to Japan is cherry on top of Okinawa deal

A century after Japan presented the US with a gift of 3,000 cherry trees, the US is reciprocating with 3,000 specially bred dogwoods. But the deal to nearly halve the number of Marines on Okinawa may be even sweeter.

Sue Ogrocki/AP
The Washington Monument is pictured with the spring time blooms of Japanese Cherry Blossoms in Washington, D.C., in March. A century after Japan presented the people of the United States with 3,000 cherry trees, the US is reciprocating by presenting Japan with 3,000 dogwood trees to be planted in a Tokyo park.

US and Japanese leaders have come and gone, as has a horrific world war that interrupted the two countries’ relations, but for 100 years the flowering cherry trees of Washington’s tidal basin have stood – and blossomed every spring – as a testament to US-Japan friendship.

Now, a century after Japan presented the people of the United States with 3,000 cherry trees, the US is reciprocating by presenting Japan with 3,000 dogwood trees to be planted in a Tokyo park.

The gift of the dogwoods, which were specially developed to thrive in Japan, was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a dinner she hosted Monday night for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the National Geographic Society in Washington. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph incorrectly stated who announced the gift and hosted the dinner.]

“We hope that, as a gesture, it will be something that our children and our children’s children, both in the United States and Japan, will have the opportunity to enjoy and treasure, just as we have had the opportunity to treasure the cherry trees,” Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Kurt Campbell said in Washington last week.

The dogwood diplomacy might be the highlight of Mr. Noda’s trip to Washington,which included the first visit by a Japanese leader to the White House in three years. (Japan, passing through a period of higher than normal political turmoil, has had four prime ministers during President Obama’s time in office.) But flowering trees are not all the two leaders are celebrating.

Both are welcoming the agreement reached last week to reduce by about 9,000, or almost half, the number of US Marines stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The military presence has been a source of tension in Okinawa and in US-Japan relations for years.

The reduction in forces stationed in Okinawa is part of a realignment of US forces in the Pacific region that will include shifting some Marines to Guam and Hawaii, and stationing others in Australia for the first time. Laying the issue of the Marines’ Okinawa presence to rest will allow the two countries to move a recurring irritant off the agenda and to focus on other issues like North Korea, China’s growing military weight, and regional trade, regional experts say.

Both leaders are touting the Okinawa agreement as a plus for Pacific region security. At a White House press conference Monday afternoon, Mr. Obama said the realignment would result in a “more broadly distributed, more flexible” US military presence across the region, while reducing the troops’ impact “on local communities like Okinawa.”

Noda said the redistribution of US forces would lead to a more secure region. And while he did not use the press conference to revisit the controversy over US forces in Okinawa, he did take a moment to express appreciation for the rescue and relief work of the US military personnel dispatched to northern Japan in response to last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

At the press conference the two leaders also addressed China’s rise, with both Obama and Noda saying they welcomed a strong and prosperous China as a partner – even as both emphasized a need for China to abide by the “rules and norms” associated with membership in the global community.

In elaborating on that theme, Obama cited respect for intellectual property rights and trade dispute resolution as two areas where China would be expected to improve its compliance with the rule of international law.

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