103 years ago, the city of Washington D.C. accepted a gift of 2,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, as a symbol of friendship between the United States and Japan. However, the donated trees were found to be infested with insects and nematodes and were subsequently burned.
Three years later, Mayor Ozaki tried again, this time donating over 3,000 sakura trees to the United States. Those healthy trees now line the Tidal Basin, a partially man-made reservoir in West Potomac Park, Washington D.C., and inspire annual cherry blossom fever and festivity in the capital of the U.S.
Neither the initial failed donation nor the second successful donation of cherry trees would have been possible without Toyama-born, Ishikawa-raised chemist Jokichi Takamine. Dr. Takamine was the first to isolate the eponymous enzyme takadiastase, which catalyzes the breakdown of starch; he was also the first to isolate and purify the hormone adrenaline, which is now used to treat cardiac arrest and anaphylaxis.
These discoveries, in combination with his pragmatic licensing agreements with American pharmaceutical companies, made Takamine a multi-millionaire. When Takamine heard of Japanese efforts to donate cherry trees to the United States, he generously funded the gift in collaboration with the mayor of Tokyo, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Geographic Society. This year marks the 100th anniversary since the successful donation and cultivation of sakura in Washington D.C. (Recently the United States government sent 3000 dogwood trees to Japan as a reciprocal gift in recognition of this anniversary. 70 of the trees were planted in Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures. Many of the remaining trees will beautify the still-recovering Tohoku region of Honshu.)
However, the United States is certainly not the only country to receive sakura from Japan. Although the sakura is speculated to be native to the Himalayas, the tree and flower have become inextricably associated with Japan and Japanese culture. The tree and its blossoms have been featured liberally in classical woodblock prints, in anime and manga, in songs and poems, and as a design on consumer goods (as well as on the money with which those consumer goods are purchased).
Now, cherry trees are to Japan as pandas are to China; significant cultural property gifted to allies as a symbol of friendship. Japan has presented cherry trees as an act of diplomacy to Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, and the UK, among other countries.
In other areas, sakura do not necessarily symbolize goodwill between Japan and other nations. Although cherry trees grow naturally in China and Korea, the presence of sakura trees also serves as a reminder of Japanese imperialism, as many of the most famous cherry blossom viewing sites were cultivated by the Japanese during occupation of mainland Asia. Indeed, according to Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in her book Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, the Japanese planted sakura to “mark” their conquered territory in mainland Asia, thereby militarizing the aesthetic of the cherry blossom. In Korea, both cherry blossoms and the practice of hanami were introduced by the Japanese during the long and brutal period of Japanese colonization. Cherry blossom festivals continue in Korea to this day, but lingering tensions between Japan and Korea have led to the destruction of many trees.
Lastly, multitudes of cherry trees blossom and grow in Brazil due to the Japanese diaspora to South America that began in the early 1900s. Japanese immigrants to Brazil brought sakura seedlings with them. Nowadays, cherry trees are a common site in São Paolo, home of the largest Japanese community outside of Japan.
No doubt the memory of blossoming sakura and hanami picnics in springtime will follow Ishikawa JETs no matter where in the world life takes us. Thankfully, due to the spread of Japanese influence abroad, sakura have spread to other countries and, in most places, remain a symbol of international friendship, spring, and Japan worldwide. For Ishikawa JETs, the sakura we encounter outside of Japan will serve as a reminder of the times we spent in Japan and the memories we made in this country.
Karin is a second-year ALT who enjoys puns, trivia, and other annoying stuff. She had “Sakura Kiss” stuck in her head throughout edits to this post.