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A Century of Cherry Blossoms

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Into every life, they say, a little rain must fall. And a little snow as well. In fact, here in Washington, some are rooting for snow before spring arrives.

“Every night before going to sleep,” Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki told reporters recently, “I pray: ‘Fall the snow. Blow the cold wind.’” It’s not that Fujisaki wants to witness at firsthand the capital city’s famously inept response to winter weather -- he’s just hoping that the city’s cherry trees will wait a few more weeks before blooming.

Few things in this world endure for a century, but this spring marks the 100th anniversary of the planting of some 3,000 cherry trees around D.C.’s tidal basin. The trees were a gift of friendship from Japan’s government.

At the time, Japan was a rising power. Less than 10 years earlier, it had routed Russia. President Theodore Roosevelt won a Nobel Prize for mediating an end to that conflict, and the Japanese were eager to establish positive relations with the United States.

Like any relationship, there have been ups and downs. For example, the first trees the Japanese government delivered (in 1910) never made it into the ground.

“To everyone’s dismay, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovered that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes, and were diseased,” the National Park Service explains in its history of the cherry trees. “To protect American growers, the department concluded that the trees must be destroyed.”

So it was the second batch of cherry trees, delivered in 1912, that were successfully planted. First Lady Helen Taft was joined on March 27 by the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, and they planted the first two cherry trees alongside the Tidal Basin.

“At the conclusion of the ceremony, the first lady presented a bouquet of ‘American Beauty’ roses to Viscountess Chinda. Washington’s renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival grew from this simple ceremony,” the NPS explains.

Like the trees, the relationship between the U.S. and Japan has had rocky patches. During the 1920s and ’30s, the Pacific Ocean wasn’t wide enough to separate our growing nations. Eventually the inevitable jostling for resources and Japanese imperial ambition led to open conflict.

A militant Japanese government launched a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, and the United States responded with righteous indignation and massive military force. “Before we’re done with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in Hell!” Adm. William Halsey famously proclaimed.

Amazingly, while the hard-fought American victory in World War II crushed the Japanese empire, it didn’t destroy U.S.-Japanese relations. After Japan surrendered, the country worked with American leaders to rebuild under a constitution that emphasized peace.

The U.S. was generous in victory, offering financial and military support. That helped turn an enemy into a friend (a process mirrored in Europe with West Germany). Across the ensuing decades, Japan became a crucial ally in Asia and a valued trading partner. The Japanese were responsible for many economic innovations, including the concept of “Just in Time” manufacturing that delivers parts when they’re needed and keeps manufacturers from having to stock massive warehouses.

For a time, it seemed Japan’s economy would surpass that of the U.S. But we learned from them -- as they had learned from us -- and American innovation helped us remain the world’s largest economy. That could serve as an object lesson for the future of U.S.-China relations.

There’s a lot of history here in Washington. Some of it is, literally, growing up out of the ground. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our lovely cherry trees, let’s pause this year to remember what they symbolize. The fact that a former foe has become one of our best allies is certainly something worth celebrating.

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