Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship
March 20–September 15, 2012
In a century-old act of friendship that forever enriched the nation’s capital with sakura (cherry blossoms), the city of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., in 1912. Springtime viewing of the blooming trees that ring the Tidal Basin quickly became a cherished tradition and a signature cultural event in the United States capital. Today, the National Cherry Blossom Festival draws more than one million visitors annually from the United States and abroad.
The Library of Congress collections illuminate the story of these landmark trees, the historical significance of cherry blossoms in Japan, and their continuing resonance in American culture and for Washingtonians in particular. The exhibition features watercolor drawings of blossom varieties among the original trees, Japanese color woodblock prints and books, and an array of photographs as well as editorial cartoons, posters, and other printed ephemera.
This exhibition coincides with the city-wide centennial celebration of the 1912 gift. It offers an opportunity to deepen understanding of Japanese culture while celebrating the Washington cherry blossoms as symbols of the enduring friendship between the people of Japan and the United States.
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Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship
Art and Documentation: Watercolors of the Original Sakura
As Washington’s sakura trees were en route from Japan, Tokyo Mayoress Yei Theodora Ozaki wrote to U.S. First Lady Helen “Nellie” Taft: “…my husband shipped off 3,000 cherry trees which he hopes will form an avenue in Washington as a memorial of national friendship between the U.S. and Japan.” On March 27, 1912, Mrs. Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of Japanese Ambassador Sutemi Chinda, planted the first two trees along the north bank of the Potomac.
The Library preserves eleven exquisitely-rendered watercolor drawings that represent a link between those cherry trees sent to Washington and their Japanese antecedents. Each drawing documents a different variety of cherry blossom from the famous trees growing along Tokyo’s Arakawa River. The drawings were acquired from Walter Tennyson Swingle, a Department of Agriculture botanist who collected thousands of Chinese and Japanese books for the Library between 1913 and 1937. His initials appear on this typescript memorandum that notes that the Arakawa trees were the source of buds selected for the ultimate gift to Washington.
The typescript memorandum also recounts Swingle’s later visit with sakura expert Seisaku Funatsu (referred to as Funazu), who was part of a team of experts tasked with selecting and growing the buds that were shipped to the U.S. in 1912. Funatsu commissioned these drawings from a “capable” artist, possibly Kōkichi Tsunoi (fl. 1892–1921). A photograph, taken during Swingle’s visit to Japan in 1918, shows Swingle (second from left) and Funatsu (center) together. Read more about Art and Documentation: Watercolors of the Original Sakura »
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A Special Gift to Washington from the City of Tokyo
Early in the twentieth century, Washington’s renowned sakura blossom trees were presented as a gift of friendship from the city of Tokyo to the nation’s capital. After an initial 1910 shipment of trees had to be destroyed due to infestation, a 1912 gift of 3,000 new trees brought forth the resplendent cherry blossoms that bloom yearly at the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park, the Washington Monument grounds, the Library of Congress, and other local sites. The story of this gift is documented in correspondence and exquisite watercolor drawings of the original cherry blossom varieties. Read more about A Special Gift to Washington from the City of Tokyo »
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Sakura: Cherry Blossoms in Japanese Cultural History
Widely celebrated in Japanese literature, poetry, and art, sakura carry layered meanings. For example, because they bloom briefly, the blossoms are often seen as a metaphor for the ephemeral beauty of living. At the same time, the joyful tradition of hanami (flower viewing) is an old and ongoing tradition. The practice was first associated with plum blossoms before becoming almost exclusively linked with cherry blossoms by the Heian Period (794–1185). With wider exposure to Japanese art and culture in the nineteenth century, audiences in the U.S. and around the world embraced sakura as a particularly Japanese cultural hallmark. Read more about Sakura: Cherry Blossoms in Japanese Cultural History »
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Sakura: Enduring Symbols of Friendship
Over the last one-hundred years, Washington’s cherry blossoms have become widely emblematic of Japan, its people, and American appreciation of Japanese culture. Hybrid traditions evolved as visitors flocked to enjoy the glowing blossoms. In 1927, school children re-enacted planting the 1912 trees—a precursor to the first Cherry Blossom Festival in 1935 which, after suspension during World War II, became an annual event along with the crowning of a Cherry Blossom Queen and Princesses. Since their arrival in 1912, the sakura trees have been a renewable source of delight, bringing communities, families, and individuals together in annual celebration. Read more about Sakura: Enduring Symbols of Friendship »
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