Sakura Park lies just east of Grant’s tomb above the Hudson River on New York’s upper west side. Its two acres are dominated by tall cherry trees, which is fitting, since sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom and the trees were given by Japan to the people of New York in 1912. Our most famous cherry blossoms were planted 105 years ago this week in Washington, D.C. They, too, were a gift from Japan in celebration of the growing friendship between the two countries, which only 29 years later were in a war that began at Pearl Harbor and ended in Nagasaki.
During that war allied bombing raids destroyed many of Japan’s cherry trees, and after the war had ended, American horticulturists sent cuttings from Washington’s trees back to Japan, where they had originated. Later, when some American trees died, the Japanese returned the favor. By now their antecedents are thoroughly mixed, and while the cherry trees could not prevent a war that included a murderous surprise attack, the Bataan death march, internment of Japanese-Americans, and two atomic bombs, they did help heal its wounds – a hopeful story of which I and most people celebrating this month’s festival were unaware.
I like to think that when First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the Japanese ambassador’s wife, planted the first trees they were also planting the kind of international goodwill that can survive – and maybe even one day transcend – war. It’s an idea, much out of favor these days, that emphasizes the common roots of our humanity.