An enduring legacy can start with a single idea.
Each year in Washington D.C., the arrival of spring is celebrated with the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Did you know that the festival marks a gift of trees from the people of Japan? The blooms signify not only the changing season, but also the long-lasting friendship between the United States and Japan. On March 23, the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington celebrates Japanese Culture Day, and we honor this special bilateral relationship.
Over one hundred years ago, Japan sent the United States a gift of 3,000 cherry trees. The first tree was planted along Washington, D.C.'s tidal basin, joined by hundreds of others to bloom into an annual rite of spring. Last year, the United States marked the anniversary by beginning a reciprocal gift of 3,000 American dogwood trees to Japan. What seemed a far-fetched idea soon flowered into reality with the help of corporate sponsors and the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation.
On a fine October afternoon last year, I sat with my colleagues in the National Arboretum's Bonsai Pavilion, where we listened to then-Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Zumwalt discuss the close ties between our two countries. We were gathered to send the first dogwoods to Japan, where they will be planted throughout the country, including in the Tohoku region affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. A representative from the arboretum told us about the selection of the dogwoods and how the trees were a metaphor for Japan's resilience and regeneration in the aftermath of the disaster. The blossoms also signify our continued positive alliance with Japan, as the United States government rebalances its engagement towards Asia.
Following the remarks at the arboretum, the assembled crowd waved off the first UPS truck laden with dogwood saplings on the first leg of their journey to Japan. Weeks later, on another bright autumn day, November 16, 2012, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara D. Sonenshine presented the dogwoods to the people of Japan in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. She noted the warmth that the pink and red blossoms would one day bring to the people of Japan. Along with Acting Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose and U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, Under Secretary Sonenshine dedicated the American gift of 3,000 dogwoods, saying, “Future generations will enjoy the shade of these trees for as long as we can foresee. They symbolize a friendship that is already strong and enduring. We see that every day, in the flow of people between our countries, whether they are students coming to study at our universities, or the 3.2 million Japanese tourists who visited the United States last year.”
President Obama has spoken frequently about the rebalance of our foreign policy towards Asia. As part of this rebalance, it is important for the United States to strengthen existing alliances in the region, not only through shared political and economic policy, but also through social and cultural exchanges. At the start of the 20th century, the Japanese gave America 3,000 cherry trees as a symbol of our friendship. Through our gift of 3,000 dogwood trees to the people of Japan, we reaffirm that friendship into the 21st century.