On March 27, 1912, two women stood in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., and planted the first two cherry blossom trees in the United States. These two women, former first lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda — wife of the Japanese ambassador — planted the first of 3,000 trees sent that year by Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki.
The trees were a token of appreciation for U.S. mediation in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. According to Kevin Doak, a professor and Nippon Foundation endowed chair in Japanese studies at Georgetown, there is another significant subtext to the burgeoning relationship between the United States and Japan.
The gift of the cherry blossoms also rested on a shared Christian faith. Ozaki was a Christian as was his wife, whose grandfather originally arrived in Japan as a missionary.
“The ancient symbol of Japanese culture came to play a key role in US-Japanese cultural relations through two globalized Japanese whose Christian faith gave them common ground with the Americans of their day,” Doak wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Regardless of the motivation behind the gift, the cultural significance of actively choosing the cherry blossom is not to be understated.
In Japan, cherry blossoms, or sakura, have been known as symbols of human life in the 18th century, as their gorgeous blossoms last only for short periods of time. Sakura have also served as a popular image of Japanese nationalism, symbolizing the honorable deaths of samurais; they were even painted on the sides of kamikaze planes during World War II.
“The cherry blossom emerged as a symbol of Japanese identity in contrast to the plum that was associated with China,” Doak said. “The custom of arranging viewing excursions of the cherry blossoms dates back at least that far.”
The blossoming of sakura was also significant because it marked rice-planting season, when one of the country’s most valuable crops is sowed. Japanese people believed that the trees possessed the spirits of mountain gods and, thus, made offerings to them. This ritual, in turn, led to the tradition of hanami: flower viewing parties lavished with food, drinks and fellowship dating back to the early eighth century.
Since Taft and Chinda’s historic planting more than a century ago, the United States has adopted certain aspects of the hanami tradition. Springtime in D.C. has become synonymous with images of the white and pink flowers blossoming over the Tidal Basin. It is, in part, due to the fact that the Cherry Blossom Festival continues to draw large crowds — about 1.5 million annually — not just from the local area but also from all across the nation and the globe.
“The National Cherry Blossom Festival signifies the start of spring and is the nation’s greatest springtime celebration,” said Nora Strumpf, communications coordinator of the festival. “With more than four weeks of events that are primarily free and open to the public, there is something for everyone to enjoy.”
However, the nation’s largest flower festival did not always boast such impressive turnout. The first festival was held in 1927 when schoolchildren decided to re-enact Taft and Chinda’s ceremony. In 1994, the festival was extended to two weeks long. The festival was completely run by volunteers until it finally hired its first executive director in the early 2000s. Today, the festival lasts roughly a month, and includes a multitude of events such as the Blossom Kite Festival, art exhibits, a parade and other programming to commemorate the diplomatic history between the United States and Japan.
One of those events is the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, which will be held tomorrow. Hosted annually by the Japan-America Society, Sakura Matsuri is the nation’s largest one-day Japanese culture festival and is now in its 57th year. Although the Society has expanded the festival to include many different aspects of Japanese culture, it started off as a small gathering in the 1960s, according to executive director Mark Hitzig.
The Japan-America’s Society’s goal, according to its mission statement, is to “continue to reach out at the people-to-people level to promote greater understanding of Japan and its culture, society and economy and to strengthen the relationship between the Japanese and American peoples.”
The Society does this through various means, including educational competitions for high school students, a film festival and cultural and political lectures.
Although the Society only has four full-time employees, during festival season, it has a 65-person volunteer committee and around 550 day-of volunteers to help put on this beloved springtime celebration.
Hitzig, who also serves on the board of directors of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, has been with the Society for over a decade. Before then, he was immersed in Japanese culture when he lived abroad as a language teacher in Nagaoka City, Niigata.
“Every step you take while you’re at this festival, you’re sure to learn something about Japanese culture,” Hitzig said.
The festival includes various performances, both modern and traditional. In particular, Hitzig highlighted that there will be a special act of bon odori, a traditional Japanese performance where taiko, a type of Japanese drum, is played as dancers dressed in yukata, a type of summer kimono, dance and move to the beat.
In addition, there is a pavilion where patrons can play Japanese videos games that have not been released in the United States, as well as a kids’ corner where young ones from ages five to 10 can learn how to make origami and practice calligraphy. For those interested in Japanese food, there is a special culinary tent where visitors can enjoy traditional Japanese cuisine and watch simulations that teach viewers how to make easy Japanese recipes.
Students looking to learn more about Japanese culture or hoping to become more culturally engaged need look no further than Georgetown’s Japan Network, or J-NET, which hosts regular programming for students interested in Japanese language and culture.
J-NET member Kenneth Lee (SFS ’17) was also chosen to be one of six goodwill ambassadors for the National Cherry Blossom Festival this year. As an ambassador, he serves as a liaison in promoting Japanese culture.
J-NET’s signature event, which was held March 25 in the Healey Family Student Center, is called Matsuri. The event draws in different campus organizations, such as the Korean Student Association, Hawai‘i Club and the Asian American Student Association, which contribute both food and performances.
“The aim of Matsuri is to celebrate the warmth and beauty of spring, as this is the time when the cherry blossoms, which mark the new year in April 1 in Japan, are blooming,” Lee said.
Sharing a name with the Sakura Matsuri Japansese Street Festival, J-NET’s rendition echoes the importance of international and intercultural cooperation.
“This semester, our theme was hyakka ryoran, which translates to ‘100 flowers blooming in profusion,’ and alludes to the coming together of beautiful and talented individuals,” J-NET Co-president Misa Mori (COL ’17) said. “In accordance with the cherry blossom festival that takes place every year in D.C., which celebrates the ally-ship of Japan and U.S., we wanted to have a theme that incorporated the same spirit of solidarity and friendship between cultures.”
The theme of solidarity is something J-NET looks to present not only during its Matsuri, but also through programming all throughout the year. Last semester the organization hosted two dialogues that discussed global topics. The first, titled Colorism in our Communities, was in collaboration with Caribbean Culture Circle, Club Filipino, Black Student Alliance and Casa Latina, according to Mori.
“One of my personal goals for this year was to incorporate intersectionality and expand Japan Network even further, beyond the comfort of the Asian community,” Mori said. “Because Japan is such a homogenous country, people misunderstand and think that Japan isn’t culturally diverse, which is far from the case.”
Mori’s sentiment is one shared by many. The National Cherry Blossom Festival, Sakura Matsuri Street Festival and J-NET are just a few examples of how crucial venues of cultural exchange are in not just sharing our own traditions with others but promoting the understanding of experiences and practices that are not our own. There was perhaps no better city for this tradition to take root than in our nation’s capital. Fittingly, after first lady Taft and Viscountess Chinda planted the symbolic Japanese blooms, Taft bequeathed Chinda with a bouquet — of American beauty roses.