This past Saturday, my family and I wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue and along other streets that had been shut down to celebrate the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival. It’s part of the cherry blossom frenzy that grips Washington, D.C., every year.
You can read a history of D.C.’s cherry blossoms at the National Park Service website, but here are a few of the highlights.
It was President Howard Taft’s wife — way back in 1909 — who first endorsed the idea of transplanting cherry trees from Japan to the U.S. capital. When the Japanese government learned of the fundraising effort to buy some trees and adorn the city, they gifted 2,000 to the first lady, Helen Taft, for her cause. Sadly, the horticulturists inspecting the trees feared that they carried diseases and pests that might spread in this country and President Taft consented to having the trees burned.
Hearing of the first shipment’s demise, Dr. Jokichi Takamine — the Japanese scientist who discovered that adrenaline exists — donated the money to buy more than 3,000 additional plants to try again. This time the trees passed inspection and forever changed the landscape of the Potomac River.
A lot has happened in Japanese American relations over these past 102 years, and these living symbols of Japan have marked the changes. On Dec. 11, 1941, some of the cherry trees were vandalized; probably in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And in 1952 cuttings from Washington’s trees were sent back to Japan to regrow the horticulturally distinct line in the country where it had been devastated almost to extinction during World War II.
The cherry trees served as symbols again Saturday.
Amid the celebration were many reminders that the people of Japan suffer mightily at this time. We were no exception. Growing up, my mom taught us that you don’t look away from pain; you acknowledge it and you offer your sympathies. Ever since last month’s earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster I have longed for a way to express my sorrow for their loss. So this weekend some of my family and I dusted off a little radio shtick from my broadcasting days and made a giant condolence card.
With two pieces of poster-size foam core, a little duct tape and colored markers we fashioned a message that included — in Japanese — “My heart is with Japan.” We took the card everywhere we went, and everywhere we went people signed it.
In Smithsonian museum buildings, at Metro stations, even held in front of wobbly legged folks riding the metro: The giant card served its purpose. Hundreds of people wrote messages of love and concern.
And yeah, some stuffed shirts — most of them my age or older — wouldn’t sign the card. I would have been fine giving them on-the-spot visas to go clean up Fukashima Prefecture, but sadly I don’t have such power.
Japanese people and Japanese Americans started coming up to us and thanking us for the card. Many folks wrote in Japanese. Little American kids drew pictures of anime characters next to the characters written in a language they don’t understand but recognized from their favorite games or television programs.
At the end of the day as we rode out of town on the Metro, an elderly lady sat near us. She looked over, read our card and began to cry. Once composed, she explained that she had just gotten off a plane from Japan. She had months before planned this trip to the U.S. to visit her grandchildren but now reluctantly left her tortured country. She took a picture of the card and thanked us over and over for caring about what had happened and what was still happening to Japan.
The next day, I hand-delivered the card to Joe Flory. Almost 66 years ago, the World War II veteran stood in the crow’s nest of the USS Missouri and witnessed the signing of the peace treaty that ended the war in the Pacific. He too wished to offer his condolences to the Japanese people. When asked if his memories of the war made signing the card difficult, he said we’ve got to “forgive and forget.”
Next week we’ll leave the card at the Japanese Embassy.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@ hotmail.com.