DC has a lot of trees. It was my strongest impression when we first arrived, probably magnified by our passage from the arid plains of Pakistan. Trees are everywhere, lining every thoroughfare, creeping unnaturally (for a British person used to different building regulations) close to houses and offices, making every park into a small wood. Among the species is the cherry, of which there are literally thousands dotted around the city, and this time of year, these trees launch a diplomatic coup and come out in force.
Around one million tourists are thought to swing by the city to enjoy the annual cherry blossom festival, and with it, the profusion of pink and white blooms. 2012 marks the event’s centennial year, prompting a five-week blossom frenzy. Keeping the organisers on their toes, unseasonably warm weather in February jolted the festival’s opening weekend forward, with a surprise frost days later threatening to gut the entire display during its prime. These antics may have fuelled local news channels and environmental sites (read global warming and the demise of the festival), but the back-story to this flowery (literally and metaphorically) event reflects one of America’s more interesting diplomatic relationships.
In 1909, First Lady Helen Taft became inspired by a long-running campaign to plant blossom trees along the Potomac river. Instead however, she fancied more of a tree-lined avenue running through a newly created park. This was the period when The Mall of today with its perfect sight-line from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial was a work in progress. In fact, one author describes “foul-smelling waters” abutting the area, and it was while the Potomac was being dredged to make it easier to navigate that 720 acres of parkland was created, along with an inlet now known as the Tidal Basin. After a diplomatic posting to the Philippines, Taft was keen to replicate her warm South-East Asian evenings, proposing a bandstand amid a beautiful park setting for the good folk of DC to enjoy.
I have no idea if she got her bandstand (I suspect she did), but she definitely got a shed-load of trees. In 1910, hearing of the scheme, Japan offered to gift the city 2,000 cherry blossom trees in a bid to show the warmth of bilateral relations. The trees may have had pedigree, but they also had diseases, and were quickly burnt soon after arrival so as not to infect local stock.
Undeterred by this diplomatic faux pas, Japan relaunched its blossom diplomacy attempt two years later, delivering more than 3,000 healthy specimens: underlining the sincerity of the act the trees came from famed Japanese stock. Many of the trees were planted around the tidal basin, and in the new park, with the rest dotted about the city.
Over the following century the trees marked the highs and lows of the US-Japanese relationship. Cherry trees have a 40-year lifespan, and as a result, Japan’s 1912 act of cultural diplomacy has prompted a centenary of specimen swaps, often during times of need: 1952 saw Japan help restock the Tidal Basin’s ailing blossom grove, while 30 years later, the US returned cuttings from this stock to Japan in a bid to help replanting efforts following a devastating flood.
Pearl Harbor prompted an esoteric form of protest, with the vandalism of four of the Tidal Basin’s trees believed to have been related to the event. As a result, for the rest of the Second World War, any reference to the trees as having been gifted by Japan was lost, replaced with talk of ‘Oriental’ trees blooming in downtown DC.
Following the depths to which bilateral ties sunk during the 1940s, the following decade saw Japan resume its blossom offensive. In 1954, it presented DC with a 300-year-old stone lantern to commemorate the signing of the 1854 Japan-US Treaty of Amity. Three years later, the Mikimoto Pearl Crown was donated to the city: weighing in at a serious five pounds of gold decorated with more than 1,500 pearls, the crown is used in the coronation of the festival’s queen. If this wasn’t enough, a stone pagoda was gifted to DC in 1958, again to emphasise the depth of friendly relations.
Such moves have continued over the years, culminating most recently in 1999, when 50 new trees were gifted, the variety first planted by a Japanese emperor in the 6th century and thus designated by Japan as a National Treasure.
In many respects, as fluffy as the subject appears, blossom diplomacy offers up some interesting insights: for a bilateral relationship to work, it needs time, interest, attention, sincerity, regular injections of fresh stock, and a lot of cultivation.