May 2, 2022 /

Celebrating This Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month through Cherry Trees

May marks the arrival of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a month to celebrate and pay tribute to the contributions of generations of Asian/Pacific Americans have made to American history, society, and culture. As a note to their continued resilience and in an effort to fully recognize their contributions to our city, we can think of no better example than our city’s famed cherry trees.

The blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC has come to symbolize the natural beauty of our nation’s capital city. But in the trees’ homeland of Japan, the tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms, known as ‘hanami,’ dates back more than 1,200 years! The name says it all – hana means “flower” and mi is “to look”.

Our famous trees, a gift of Japan in 1912, signal Washington’s beginning of spring with an explosion of life and color that surrounds the Tidal Basin in a sea of pale pink and white blossoms. But those Japanese cherry trees didn’t sprout up around the Mall on their own, We have First Lady Helen and the Mayoress of Tokyo Yei Theodora Ozaki.

Often overlooked and forgotten are the first President and First Lady to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery —President William Howard Taft and his wife Helen “Nellie” Taft. In 1909, Mrs. Taft received a letter from Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a local author and member of the National Geographic Society, detailing a plan to plant cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. A student of Japan, Mrs. Taft responded to the letter by agreeing to the overall plan; but she suggested some minor changes to the layout of the trees around the Basin.

Serendipitously, Scidmore and Taft’s plans were hatched while Japanese officials were working to strengthen ties between the two nations using less traditionally diplomatic channels. The Japanese consul proposed to donate 2,000 cherry trees for the planting effort as a gesture of goodwill. The variety of tree species selected were to represent the different regions of the Japanese Empire.

After the first batch of trees was discovered to be infected with a fungus, Japan donated another batch of cherry trees to the Capitol. In March of 1912, approximately 3,000 trees arrived in the District with a personal letter from the Mayoress of Tokyo who wrote, “[The Mayor] hopes [the trees] will form an avenue in Washington as a memorial of national friendship between the U.S. and Japan.” She wished that the trees would serve as a visual reminder of Japanese devotion and admiration, “for her old friend and tutor, America.”

Mrs. Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the first two saplings on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. Those trees still stand today with a small plaque commemorating the event.

A plaque noting the planting of the first cherry trees in 1912.

And it has truly been a lasting connection – In the aftermath of World War II, the National Park Service provided budwood from the cherry trees in order to help restore the original grove of the Adachi Ward in Tokyo. First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson and Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, recreated the ceremony of the first planting in 1965 with a donation of almost 4000 cherry trees from Japan to the United States. More recently, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Japanese Ambassador again planted trees in 2012 to represent the friendship of the two nations.

Cherry tree blooming provides an unmatched backdrop to our city. Thousands flock to see their delicate blooms and Yoshino cherry petals are often listed among DC’s symbols. They are truly a gift that has kept on giving.

A bit more on Asian American Heritage Month

The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).