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editorial | cherry trees

Blossoms stronger than bombs

File/The Boston Globe

Cherry blossoms frame a Swan Boat in the Public Garden.

THIS MONTH marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of thousands of cherry trees, a botanical delight that has come to symbolize the friendship between America and Japan. The opening of the five-week cherry blossom festival in Washington today is expected to draw huge crowds, while Bostonians will mark the occasion with events including a Kabuki dance at the Paramount Theater, a celebration of Japanese anime, and a tree-planting ceremony with Governor Patrick in the Public Garden on April 18.

But amid all the joy, it is worth remembering that this festival didn’t start off so auspiciously.

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The first trees, which arrived in 1910, were so pest-ridden that President Taft ordered them burned, resulting the passage of the first US law aimed at keeping out invasive insects. Meanwhile, the trees were given at a time of rising tension with Japan, whose incursions into Manchuria and Korea so alarmed the United States that it secretly drew up contingency plans for war in 1907, even though Japan had been an ally.

“The cherry trees were part of trying to ameliorate this rising tension,’’ said Walter Lafeber, a specialist on US-Japan relations.

In 1941, four days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a vandal chopped down four cherry trees. The festival was suspended and cherry blossoms took on an ominous meaning: Japanese pilots painted blossoms on their planes before kamikaze missions, to symbolize their fleeting youth and sacrifice. But after the war, the festival resumed. The former mayor of Tokyo who had given the original trees was warmly welcomed in Washington.

In the 1980s, when tension flared over competition between Japanese and American auto companies, Japan turned once again to the trees, planting more than a thousand around Boston, including on the Esplanade by the Charles River.

This year’s festival, which comes one year after an earthquake devastated Japan, is a tribute not just to friendship, but also resilience — of Japan, the United States, and the alliance between the two.

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