There are many hardships to endure if you live or work, as I do, in our nation’s capital. Traffic into Washington from surrounding suburbs is, as my old English professor would say, “an anathema, lads, which means ‘worthy of a vile curse.’” The weather in the summer is a horrific combination of polluted air, high heat and humidity, and frequent thunderstorms. Washington in the winter means one traffic accident for every two snowflakes.
As for local government, a former Washington mayor, Marion Barry, was once re-elected in a landslide after spending time in prison for crack cocaine possession. And don’t get me started on the federal government.
But there is one week in Washington that almost makes it all worthwhile. That is in the spring, during the week of the Cherry Blossom Festival, when the cherry trees are in bloom along the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin, which adjoins the Jefferson Memorial. There is no sight quite like it in the world.
The first two of these cherry trees were planted 100 years ago this week (March 27, 1912) by Helen Taft, the wife of then-President William Taft, and the Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador, whose country had proposed giving 3,000 cherry trees to America as a gift. The two women dug up enough soil to plant two trees taken from the famous collection of cherry trees along the bank of the Arakawa River, near Japan’s capital city of Tokyo. The other trees were later planted around the Tidal Basin, as well as in East Potomac Park and on the White House grounds.
The original suggestion to plant cherry trees in Washington was made by a Washington socialite, Eliza Scidmore, but when Helen Taft learned of the plan she enthusiastically supported it, having lived in Japan when her husband headed a commission dealing with Far East matters. Mrs. Taft’s interest prompted the Japanese government to offer the trees as a token of Japan’s friendship, and although the original trees sent to American in 1910 were diseased, the trees that arrived in Washington in 1912 were both healthy and — as any visitor to Washington’s mall area in the spring can attest — breathtakingly beautiful.
But as history can attest, the friendship between Japan and America was not always as strong as in 1912. Indeed, in 1944 the two countries were at war, and during that war U.S. bombers engaged in a massive firebombing campaign against Tokyo that literally destroyed the city, including many of that city’s cherry trees. And so, after the war, as a goodwill gesture cuttings from Washington’s cherry trees were sent back to Japan to help restore the Tokyo trees that had been destroyed in those attacks.