Archive for the ‘trees’ Category

Object Unfound

May 13, 2012

The centennial celebration of the 1912 gift of cherry trees to the city of Washington, DC has now ended, and the last cherry blossom petals have blown away.  Because of their annual spectacular display along the Tidal Basin, these trees are a part of the American landscape well-known about even by people who have never seen them in person.  What is less well-known about is the reciprocal gift of 50 dogwoods presented by former President Taft and his wife to the city of Tokyo in 1915.

When the Tree learned about this gift a few years ago, we set out on a search for the trees not only in cyberspace but in the wooded spaces of some of Tokyo’s many parks.  Our objective:  To find a living specimen of the original 50.

Led by an on-line article in the Japan Times, we visited Hibiya Park, where, the article claimed, we could find a contingent of the original group of dogwoods.  While we did find a copse of dogwoods there, beautifully in bloom, we also found signs indicating that none of them were part of the 1915 gift, but were later arrivals.

In a small park across from the National Diet Building we found another cluster of dogwoods, but these it turned out were a 1960 gift from the U.S. government to commemorate the completion of the Ozaki Memorial Hall, which was built on the grounds of the park.  (Below you can see the sign explaining the trees’ provenance.  Our translation staff has provided an English version.)

“In 1912 the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, presented cherry tree saplings to the city of Washington, DC for the furtherance of friendship between Japan and the United States.  In return, in 1915 dogwood trees were sent to Tokyo from the American government.

“Ozaki was instrumental in establishing our parliamentary government, and dedicated his life to the development of world peace and democracy.  He is known as the Father of Constitutional Government.

“When it was decided to build the Ozaki Memorial Hall (now the Parliamentary Museum) in honor of Ozaki’s achievements, 250 dogwood saplings were once again donated by the American government, and were planted here upon completion of the hall’s construction in 1960.”

Finally, following a tip from an anonymous blog, which claimed that all but one of the original 50 dogwoods had died, and that this lone survivor could be found in the Koishikawa Botanical Garden of Tokyo University, we went there to verify its existence with our own eyes.  We stopped at the entrance gate to ask the security guard where we might find the dogwood, only to be told that it had been chopped down a few years ago because it had “gone bad.”  Object unfound.

In spite of the dwindling away of the original 50, there is no lack of American dogwoods (cornus florida) in Japan today.  Over the years, it has become the tree of choice for gifts to Japan by American civic and governmental groups like the Rotary Club or the State of Ohio.  And, as with the 1960 gift noted above, by the federal government as well.  During the recent visit of Prime Minister Noda to Washington, Secretary of State Clinton announced at a dinner in his honor the gift of 3,000 dogwoods to the people of Japan.

It remains to be seen how long this renewed symbol of friendship between the two nations will last in the unspecified “Tokyo park” for which the trees are destined.

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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.

Ono Chikkyo: Artist of the Non-Spectacular

May 12, 2010

ART SEEN. At one end of the ticket is printed a copy of a painting.  In the right foreground is a luminous green willow tree, and beyond it stretch rows of evenly spaced rice seedlings.  The water in the paddy reflects white cumuli floating upside down in a calm blue heaven.  There is no human figure in the picture.

The artist is Ono Chikkyo (1889-1979), whose works, more than 170 of them, were on display this past March and April at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.  The picture on the ticket is an illustration of a poem by the haiku poet Basho, which reads in English:  “They planted/an entire paddy/ere I moved from the willow tree.”

I could say the same about this exhibit.  Usually when I visit an art museum, I wander around looking for three or four works that I find especially appealing and focus on them alone rather than trying to take in everything.  But the Ono works seemed to demand that you look at all of them in order to understand just one of them even better.  Many of them held me at the spot in front of them, exerting a quiet magnetic force from which it was hard to break away.

Ono Chikkyo was a nihonga artist, which means he painted in the traditional Japanese style, using special techniques, materials and subject matter.  I am not an expert on the techniques or how they differ from those used in so-called “western art,” but it is clear that the subject matter is the natural world and the daily living of humans that is woven into and part of that natural world.  In Ono’s paintings trees and mountains and water abound, as well as light and color, which shift, deepen, or fade with the changing seasons.  The human presence is small, and sometimes hard to detect at first, a tiny figure in a vast rural  landscape:  a man bent over tilling his vegetable patch with a hoe, a woman standing and gazing at a view, someone tending to farm animals.  It is not the individual features of the people which are important but their stances and locations within the wider natural scene.

“The nature which I take as my subject is not that of a special place, but an innocent-looking water surface or field, and the clouds and trees that one looks up to,” Ono wrote.  He found much of his subject matter in his native Okayama Prefecture, located in western Japan on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea.  The prefecture is heavily forested, mountainous in the north, with rivers running to the sea, all providing suitable material for Ono’s concentration on the “non-special.”  (He was born in the city of Kasaoka, which maintains the Kasaoka Ono Chikkyo Art Museum, where most of the works on display at the Tokyo venue can be seen when not on tour.)

In an early work, “A Day in Late Winter” (1910), a path winds through a field surrounded by soft hills scattered here and there with trees.  On each side of the path an evergreen tree rises up over everything else.  In the distance the hills culminate in a snow-capped peak.  Blending into the landscape like one of the smaller trees, and making its way toward you between the two taller trees, is a human figure carrying a heavy load on his back.  The entire scene is rendered in dark shades of brown and green, with the exception of the white snow on the distant mountain and the splash of yellow on the human figure’s back.  The human is dwarfed by the height of the trees and the distant peak, yet is very much of the scene, not walking through it but in it.

In another work, “Winter Day Album” (1928), a white hut sits in the middle of withered fields under a gray sky.  Greenish blue evergreens form a shelter behind it, and the fields themselves are a jumble of soft, undulating shapes and colors:  green, pink, brown, gray.  A small white path winds in and out of the fields and past the hut.  A woman in an orange coat stands on this path, with one hand in a pocket of the coat and the other held at her mouth.  She is too small to see what she is doing.  Is she eating something?  Did she set out on a walk to the village and then suddenly realize she had forgotten to bring her wallet?  Possibly she just has a bag slung over one shoulder.  She looks lost in thought, unaware of the important role she plays in bringing a spark of warmth to the landscape that is just beginning to stir and stretch itself out of its winter sleep.

Nihonga uses different paints from western-style oil-painting or even watercolor, though nihonga paints are water-based.  The pigments are for the most part made from natural ingredients like rocks, shells, coral and semi-precious stones, which are ground into powders.  The resulting palette is different from that found in western paintings.  In Ono’s works the colors are muted and matte, yet rich in depth and variation. [See this issue’s Found Object section.]

Ono also wrote that “if you become open-minded, nature comes closer.”  His later works seem to reflect this idea as his palette becomes deeper, more vibrant, and he begins to focus on smaller things, framing a more limited and close-up view:  the vertical lines of tree trunks standing in snow, the pattern of white-capped waves rolling into an inlet, the reflection of sunset light on water surfaces.

My favorites are a series of trees which Ono began in the mid-60s and continued into the last decade of his life; views of a field, a river, clouds or sky at sunset, or so you think at first until you realize you are looking at the field or sky through the branches of a foregrounded tree.  These trees are painted with intricate care and detail, as if the artist were determined not to leave out even the most minute ramification of a branch.  The background is no less important now—-indeed, many of them are rendered in vivid pinks and oranges—-but you begin to wonder about all the other scenes in your life that you may have looked at, while failing to see what was immediately in front of you, framing them.

Ono Chikkyo teaches you to look at the “non-spectacular” natural world around you with new eyes.  And then, when you pause on the way home from work or in the middle of an arduous outdoor task to take a closer look at your surroundings, you might be startled to find yourself standing in the middle of one of his paintings.

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FOUND OBJECTS: Earlier this year I went with some friends to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s financial district, where we visited a small art gallery.  Wandering through the side streets, we came upon a shop selling nihonga supplies.  Nearly one whole wall consisted of glass cabinets full of paint powders.

Yubendo sells not only nihonga paints, but also brushes (including a natural bristle cosmetic brush for $60) and attractive little souvenirs made from Japanese paper, as well as the paper itself.  For 400 yen you can also buy a “dream bag” full of colorful remnants of paper used to make the souvenirs. [Yubendo, 1-6-6 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo]


PHOTO GALLERY: Our Tree photographer was so impressed with the postcard reproductions I brought home with me from the Ono exhibit that she tried paying more attention to tree branches in the foreground as well as the small-scale presence of humans in the midst of nature in the photos she took of the recent cherry blossom bash at Zenpukuji Pond.

Totoro’s Tree

April 25, 2010

Feature Story:  A Tree Grows in Nishiogi! One cold day late last year I was out riding around Nishiogi on my bike.  I came upon a recently created vacant lot, surrounded by a fence made of vinyl sheeting.  I had forgotten the building that used to occupy this space but not the tree, which still stood in the middle of the lot, spreading its now bare branches skyward.  I took a picture of it because I felt sure it was doomed to be cut down, as all trees are cut down sooner or later in our town if they stand in the way of an ambitious development project.

This is a keyaki or zelkova tree.

Zelkovas are members of the Elm Family.  For those Tree readers who have never seen one, here’s a few words about them from Kevin Short, who writes a wonderful nature and folklore column for the Daily Yomiuri:  “The keyaki is an Asian tree, growing from Honshu Island south and west to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and mainland China….Keyaki wood is hard and true, with beautiful grain.  Many of the spectacular bowls and trays covered with urushi lacquer are carved from keyaki. Temples and shrines use the wood in beams and supports, and also in the intricate carvings on the walls and pillars.”  If you visit the grounds of a shrine, you are almost sure to find a keyaki towering above you.

The other day I opened up one of my bookmarked websites (called “Nishiogi Navi”) which covers local news, and there on the home page was a picture of this same tree.  Only now it had a name:  Totoro’s Tree.  It had not been cut down after all, but instead had become a local celebrity.  And the following morning, Sunday, April 18, a dedication ceremony would be held at the site of the tree to celebrate its rescue from the bulldozer and to open officially the new park that had been built around it.

According to this and other linked up websites, this zelkova had once held the status of “Valuable Tree” under the protection of Suginami Ward.  In March 2008, however, the heir to the landowner of the lot on which the Valuable Tree stood filed a request to have the protection status rescinded so that the tree could be removed to make room for a residential building.  Apparently permission was immediately granted.  (So much for “Valuable Tree” status!)  But the local residents “rose up against the planned felling of the tree” and started a “Save Totoro’s Tree” movement.  By June of the same year, they had collected 8,000 signatures calling for the tree’s preservation.  The ward caved in, bought the land from the owner, and turned it into a park.

So last Sunday morning I actually got up early and took on the assignment of attending the ceremony.  (I asked other staff members to come with me, but they all grumbled about it being Sunday morning and so on, so I ended up going alone.)

Totoro’s Tree

The barrier around the lot had been removed, and in its place was a garden plot of straggly flowering shrubs set out in terraced rows.  The park itself consisted of bare earth, still muddy from the recent rain spell, and a couple of benches scattered around the edges.  The tree had changed too.  Its branches were now adorned with pale green fuzzy-looking leaves and flowers.  I kept looking up into those branches and wondering what the tree was making of all the fuss going on down below on its behalf.

I was not the only member of the press there.  All the “front row” spots were already filled with cameramen and their crews.  We neighborhood people had to make do with less advantageous positions around the edges.  (So no complaints please about the poor quality of the photographs.)  The ward had brought out all the requisite paraphernalia for this sort of ceremony in Japan:  a red and white striped awning for VIPs to sit behind, a red and white ribbon stretched in front of the tree for the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a time capsule (in which I later learned were placed newspaper cuttings about the movement to save the tree so that later generations will realize the “valuableness” of trees), and a display of 250 potted geraniums to be given out to the first 250 people to arrive at the park.  (I was no. 235.  And yes, I did go home with a new geranium for the Tree office.)

Press Section

The ceremony consisted of several speeches by local politicians and big wigs, the burying of the time capsule, and the cutting of the ribbon.  We heard first from the Vice Mayor of Suginami Ward, who told us that this tree was now the symbol of Suginami, and he considered it the finest example of a zelkova in the whole ward.  I was reminded of a scene in the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Ikiru (To Live).  In that film, a civil servant who works at the local ward office fights on behalf of local housewives who want to get a vacant lot turned into a playground for their children.  They run into opposition at every turn, from bureaucratic red tape to big money interests and gangsters, but the lowly civil servant fights on unflinchingly and the park finally comes into being.  At its dedication, however, all the speeches are made by the politicians, who also take all the credit for the park’s existence.  Not that the vice mayor was taking all the credit for Totoro’s tree:  he was not. But not only did we not hear from any of the “non-important” people who had actually done the  hard work to make this park happen, but the vice mayor bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played the part of the mayor in the film.

Vice Mayor’s Speech

A member of the ward assembly spoke next, in the glib and flowing tones of a typical politician.  All these politicians speak the same way, very fast and all seemingly impromptu, full of high-sounding polite expressions, so reassuring on the surface if you don’t try too hard to understand what they are saying but which if you could slow down the flow long enough to hear what is actually being said would evaporate into meaningless and empty sounds.  “It’s so wonderful to have this tree here blah blah blah and thanks to all the hard work and cooperation of everyone involved we could have this tree here blah blah blah and we must do all we can to save nature which is a treasure for our children blah blah blah and something everyone wants and needs blah blah blah and I myself will do all I can for nature and will appreciate this tree in my heart forever blah blah blah.”

Meanwhile, all over the ward, as well as the entire city of Tokyo, trees are being felled and flowering bushes uprooted at an ever-faster rate. We here at the Tree are of course happy that this one particular example of a zelkova was saved, and we think that the successful efforts of the residents who led the signature campaign are an encouraging sign. But we also fear that this “symbol” of Suginami means just that:   a token payment to the natural world which can be used as a sign of  good “tree-saving” intentions, thus sparing bureaucrats and politicians the more difficult and demanding task of revising and revoking policies and regulations that hasten and encourage destruction of Tokyo’s natural environment.

[Totoro’s Tree is located in 38 Nishiogikita 4-chome.  To walk there from Nishiogi Station, go out the north exit and go left on the shopping street known as Ichibangaijoshidaidori 「一番街女子大通り」.  Walk about five minutes until you come to a cross street with a furniture store on the right corner.  Turn here and walk straight about four blocks to the park.  You’ll pass the Newbury Cafe on your right, a nice place to stop for a drink or light meal on your way back to the station.]

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THIS JUST IN: Tokyo Tree resident poet wins Honorable Mention in 2010 Kikakuza Haibun Contest. We are pleased to announce that our poet-in-residence was recently among those honorably mentioned in a haibun contest held by Kikakuza, a linked verse association here in Japan.  She will receive this award for “After a Night of Cold Rain,” a modified version of a haibun first seen in the pages of the Tree, in which she described the Grand Tour cohort’s excursion to Nikko in essay form with a few haiku thrown in.

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Found Object: I walked out of the Tree office the other day and found a gargoyle attached to my next door neighbor’s balcony.   On closer inspection, it was the household pooch, catching a few rays.

Gargoyle Sighting

“Shoulda brought my shades…”