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Burned and vandalized: A history of cherry blossoms bearing the brunt of xenophobia

From Pearl Harbor to Covid-19 scapegoating, Japanese cherry blossom trees have been destroyed during times of heightened anti-Asian sentiment.
Image: A woman takes pictures of cherry blossoms in bloom as the sun rises, at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC on March 23, 2022.
A woman takes pictures of cherry blossoms as the sun rises at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., on March 23.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

This time every year, a sea of bright pink frames outdoor spaces from the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., as thousands of cherry trees reach full bloom. The trees, which are nonnative to North America, now blossom across the country after the U.S. first imported them from Japan more than a century ago. 

The trees, which symbolize a history of friendship between the two countries, have a variety of meanings — including life, death and renewal — for the Japanese diaspora. Yet, at times when fear and prejudice flare up in the U.S., they have also been targets of violence against Japanese Americans or Asians at large.

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, vandals cut down four of the cherry trees around Washington’s Tidal Basin, inscribing “To Hell With the Japanese” on one of the severed trunks. Cherry blossoms have been an iconic sight in the capital since Tokyo gave them to the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Rider Joy Cummings examines a Japanese cherry tree that was cut down with the words "To hell with those Japanese," carved into it, Dec. 10, 1941.
Rider Joy Cummings examines a Japanese cherry tree that was cut down with the words "To Hell With the Japanese" carved into it on Dec. 10, 1941.AP file

Since 1912, Washington has regularly hosted an annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws more than 1.5 million people every year to celebrate the friendship between the two countries. The festival ceased throughout much of World War II as anti-Japan sentiment spiked, according to the National Park Service, and people insisted on renaming the trees “Oriental” cherry trees.

As Asian Americans confront another wave of xenophobia brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and tense U.S. relations with China, a Japanese cultural center in San Francisco’s Japantown — the largest and longest-standing Japanese American community in the country — has felt the scapegoating continue.

Three cherry trees were vandalized outside the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California at the start of 2021. After an outpouring of support from donors, the center planted four cherry blossom trees this year and hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday to dedicate the fourth tree to the donors.

When the center found the trees last year, every branch had been ripped off to leave only the trunks. Law enforcement agencies did not label the incident a hate crime, but one thing was clear to Paul Osaki, the cultural center’s director: This was more than breaking a few branches —it was an act meant to destroy the trees.

“It really felt like an attack against our cultural heritage. And so that hurt,” Osaki said. “I’d almost prefer them to attack me versus those trees. They were very special and meant a lot more than just a tree growing up in the sidewalk.”

The cherry blossoms, which were planted nearly 30 years ago to commemorate a visit from the emperor and empress of Japan, were the first to have been planted in more than half a century. The city uprooted every tree in Japantown from the 1960s to the 1980s during a redevelopment initiative targeted at areas of “urban blight” — defined partly as neighborhoods with major influxes of non-European populations — the San Francisco Planning Department said in a report.

Osaki said residents first got notice in 1948 about the urban renewal project, which planned to raze and reconstruct much of Japantown at a time when Japanese Americans were still a “very hated community” as a result of World War II. Families in the area, many of whom had just begun returning from prison camps a couple of years previously, were given a deadline to sell their homes or be evicted.

The cherry blossom trees that were removed during the period included those planted by the earliest generation to settle down in the part of San Francisco that became home to the country’s first Japantown, Osaki said. But just as new cherry trees blossomed in the 1990s, the cultural center once again expects to see the pink flowers bloom by its entrance.

“When those trees were destroyed [last year], we just figured there wouldn’t be any cherry blossom trees that bloom this year,” Osaki said. “Because [the support] was so unexpected, it really gave us hope. During this time period, we’re dealing with Covid, we’re dealing with Asian hate crimes — it’s just not a good time. So to see the kind of goodwill that came out of this was just really heartwarming.”

Cherry blossoms are typically celebrated in the spring, both for their beauty and as hope for a new beginning, Osaki said. Viewing them every year is a common ritual not just for Japanese communities, but also for Americans of all backgrounds.

Image: People visit the cherry blossoms as they bloom at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2022.
People visit the cherry blossoms as they bloom at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

When the U.S. first received the blossoms from Japan, officials rejected them. About two years before the blossoms were planted, Japan had given Washington an initial gift of 2,000 cherry trees. But when they arrived in 1910, the Agriculture Department discovered upon inspection that they were diseased and infested with insects, according to the National Park Service. The trees were burned.

Some anthropologists, including Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, are skeptical about whether the trees were, indeed, infested. An editorial published in response by The New York Times also said: “We have been importing ornamental plants from Japan for years, and by the shipload, and it is remarkable that this particular invoice should have contained any new infections.” 

After the turn of the century, Ohnuki-Tierney said, U.S. isolationists found themselves gradually beginning a tug-of-war with policymakers who were open to greater internationalism. Nativist Charles Marlatt headed the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Entomology, which inspected imported plants.

Marlatt, who held strong concerns about pests from nonnative plants, had campaigned unsuccessfully for plant quarantine legislation. Entomology experts have suggested that his honeymoon trip to China and Japan, during which his wife contracted an unknown illness that later caused her death, influenced his concerns.

“The plants from Japan and China, on one hand, people tried to welcome them. On the other hand, the isolationists started to object to them,” Ohnuki-Tierney said. “And it is very interesting the way anti-Asian racism very, very easily comes up in the United States.”

So when Japanese officials prepared a second shipment, they enlisted multiple quarantine and horticultural experts to supervise the cherry trees’ cultivation before they reassured the Agriculture Department that preventive measures had been taken to eliminate the possibility of pests. Park Service records show that that batch of trees was accepted and planted along the Potomac River in 1912.

Since the end of World War II, the Park Service has recorded no further acts of vandalism to cherry trees in the capital — although the concern has resurfaced in light of increased violence against Asian communities in recent years, said Ryan Shaffer, the president of Japan-America Society of Washington.

Shaffer, who is on the board of the Cherry Blossom Festival, oversees the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, the largest annual celebration of Japanese culture in the U.S. Both events had been disrupted for the past two years, and Shaffer said it was “incredibly heartening” to see this year’s full-fledged festivals attract even larger turnouts than those of 2019. 

“Many of us in the national capital region and around the country could easily forget that the cherry trees were connected to Japan at all, because they’ve become such an iconic and treasured piece of the cultural legacy of our area,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for everybody to come out and show their love for the cherry trees and Japan’s gift to the United States every spring.”