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Where are the cherry blossoms?

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An air of sadness has descended on Tokyo.  The sky is grey.  The weather is cold, with drizzling rain.  And what’s more, the cherry blossoms (“Sakura”) are late.

By contrast, over there in Washington, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom along the Potomac River.  And the National Cherry Blossom Festival is well underway.  Yesterday, Tokyo’s "hanami" (blossom viewing) crowds were huddled up in overcoats and drinking sake just to keep warm 

What could this portend for the destinies of these two cities?  American President Obama is now riding high with the passage of his health bill.  While Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has recently apologized to the Japanese public for his disappointing performance, even pleading for understanding because of his team’s inexperience.

Washington has been one of the world’s cherry blossom capitals for almost a century.  In 1912 Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki made a gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington in honour of what was believed to the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan.  At the time, no one imagined that 30 years after the two countries would be at war.  The first two trees were planted on the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park in March 1912 by US First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador. 

In 1915, the United States Government reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.  The first "festival” was held in 1935, sponsored by civic groups in the Nation’s Capital.  A 350-year-old lantern was donated by the Japanese ambassador in 1954 to celebrate Japanese-American friendship, and a small Shinto pagoda was donated in 1958.  As evidence of the circle of life, in 1981, Japanese horticulturists were given cuttings from American cherry blossom trees to replace some cherry trees in Japan which had been destroyed in a flood.

Washington’s National Cherry Blossom Festival is a major two week national and international event, with more than a million people visiting Washington each year to admire the blossoming cherry trees.  The centennial anniversary of the gift of trees in 2012 will be an historic and special occasion.

For the Japanese, the beauty of the sakura is a symbol equated with the ephemeral and fleeting nature of human life.  While the cherry blossom trees flower for two weeks, they are only at their peak for a mere three days.  Celebration of the sakura flowering goes back centuries and is very much a popular affair.  Tokyo residents, often in groups of office colleagues, flock to parks to lay down tarpaulin sheets and have picnics and long drinking sessions.

Cherry blossoms and leaves are edible.  At Starbucks, you can buy sakura tea and sakura cake.  In the gardens around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, you can buy sakura ice cream.  There are dozens of other ways in which the sakura can be consumed.

The sakura season, when it really arrives, should be a moment of joy for morose Japan. 

The locals need this in order to prepare themselves for the impossibly humid summer season which follows, along with the coming Upper House elections.


US National Cherry Blossom Festival