Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques marking the presence of cherry trees grafted from trees in Potomac Park — scions of the 3,000 trees Japan sent to Washington a hundred years ago. A couple hundred saplings of these “homecoming cherry trees” are being planted around Japan.
It’s one of many U.S.-Japanese projects celebrating last year’s centennial of Washington’s cherry trees. Japan is also planting 3,000 dogwood trees that were a gift from the United States.
On the plaques, Eliza Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in bringing flowering cherry trees to Washington. Eliza had come up with the idea many years earlier but failed to win the support of park supervisors. Dr. Takamine had similarly tried in vain to have cherry trees planted in a park in New York City, where he lived.
A fortuitous moment came when Eliza encountered Dr. Takamine and his travel companion, the Japanese consul in New York, at social events in Washington in the spring of 1909. When she informed them of Mrs. Taft’s plans to have some flowering cherry trees planted in Potomac Park — a move Mrs. Taft took up at Eliza’s suggestion — Dr. Takamine offered to personally buy a couple thousand trees for the project.
Eliza Scidmore mediated the offer with Mrs. Taft. In the end, it was decided to have the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, officially offer the trees as a symbol of friendship between Japan and the United States. The gesture was rich with meaning because it came at a time of rising anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast.
Jokichi Takamine was a wealthy businessman and brilliant chemist whose discoveries have led some medical historians to call him the “father of modern biotechnology.” In his first commercial breakthrough — inspired by traditional methods of saké and soy sauce production in Japan — he harnessed a starch-decomposing enzyme to improve the fermentation process for whiskey production. His greatest achievement was isolating and purifying the hormone adrenaline, now an important substance in medicine and surgery.
To honor the legacy of Takamine, the Hokkokku Newspaper Company teamed up with the Japan Cherry Blossom Association to plant “homecoming cherry trees” in his native area of Japan. The newspaper’s offices are in the city of Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture. Last week I went with Kunihiko Nakada, of the Yokohama Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Japan-America Society of Yokohama, to see a couple of the newly planted trees.
Every year the Japan Cherry Blossom Association plants about 25,000 cherry trees around the country, on riverbanks, in public parks, along roadways. A current priority is planting large numbers of the trees as part of reconstruction efforts in the coastal area of northeastern Japan that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.