Archive for March, 2012

Some Progress

March 28, 2012

One hundred years ago today, on March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Washington, went down to the Tidal Basin, hoisted their spades, and planted the first two of 3020 cherry trees presented to the District of Columbia by the city of Tokyo.  This low-key but ground-breaking event not only established a  tradition of flower-viewing à la japonaise in America, but also implanted in the collective minds of both Japanese and American people the awareness that a special relationship might exist between their two countries.

One manifestation of this awareness is the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival held at this time of year at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.  This year, to celebrate the centennial of the trees’ arrival, a special extended edition is being held from March 20 through April 27.    According to the festival sponsor, “The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and the continued close relationship between the two countries.”

[www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/about/history]

The original gift came about not through official government channels, but through the efforts of one man in particular, Yukio Ozaki, who at that time was serving as Mayor of Tokyo, and was in fact intended to honor something more specific and controversial than “lasting friendship.” According to the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation, the Mayor arranged for the gift of cherry trees in order “to express the appreciation of the Japanese people for America’s role in assisting Japan” in the Russo-Japanese War.

[www.ozakiyukio.or.jp/english/index.html]

This appreciation, however, was not universally shared among the Japanese, many of whom resented the American-brokered outcome of that war, which deprived Japan of war indemnities and the northern half of Sakhalin.

Known in Japan as “the father of constitutional government,” Mr. Ozaki was a liberal politician who was instrumental in the establishment of parliamentary democracy.  In 1912 Japan, liberalism and a love of democracy were enjoying a brief and fragile flowering that was soon to be swept away by the winds of militarism, which Mr. Ozaki opposed.

In the same year as the gift of the trees, a daughter Yukika was born to the Mr. and Mrs. Ozaki.  When Yukika died in 2008 at the age of 96, an op ed piece about her appeared in the Daily Yomiuri.  The essay mentions the prejudice she endured as a schoolgirl because of her father’s liberalism.  “Cherry trees symbolize the soul of the Japanese people.  A traitor sold our soul,” her teacher told her class, referring to her father and the same blossoms currently being enjoyed at the Tidal Basin.  Yukika grew up to become president of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, devoting her own life to helping those who suffer from war.  (The AARJ is active in various war-torn areas of the world including Afghanistan, where it helps people injured by land mines.)

Thus, the original intention of this gift was not just to foster some sort of vague and flowery friendship to which governments could easily pay lip service, but to commit a relationship between two powerful, potentially rival countries to the nurturance and propagation of world peace.  Needless to say, the course of this friendship from that March day in 1912 to today has been anything but smooth and straightforward.  It has endured imperialistic joustings in the early years of the 20th century, open hostilities and mutual bombing raids in World War II, the post-war American Occupation, trade frictions, and tensions over the continuing presence of US air bases and attendant troops on Okinawa even now in the 21st.

Somehow this so-called friendship has survived, just as the two original trees planted 100 years ago today still stand their ground, ancient now and gnarled, testimonies perhaps to the enduring possibility of a “world peace” which seems more elusive now than ever.  Meanwhile, the United States still fights in Afghanistan, and Japan readies itself to shoot down another one of those unidentified flying objects North Korea threatens to launch in their direction some day soon.  No one, it seems, is busier preparing for peace today than anyone was a hundred years ago.  Some progress.