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.
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