The nation’s capital began a blizzard of cherry blossom (“hanafubuki“) events March 20, the 100th anniversary of Japan’s 1912 gift of 3,000 blossoming cherry trees as a symbol of friendship.
Cherry blossoms were at an early peak for the opening of the centennial National Cherry Blossom Festival, which continues through April 27. The peak continued through March 24.
Another opening, another show, another peak March 20 — the opening of an exquisite exhibit at the Library of Congress, “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship”.
“Sakura“, which means blossoming cherry trees, includes (click here for each of the 54 items, all from Library of Congress) watercolors of the 11 blossom varieties among the original trees, painted by K. Tsunoi from 1918 to 1921; Japanese woodblock prints featuring landscapes of blossoming trees highlighted by famed woodblock print artist Hiroshige’s accordion book; and editorial cartoons such as Herblock’s 1939 drawing about an approaching world war.
· The watercolors are “a direct visual link between the parent trees from Tokyo and the trees along the Tidal Basin,” co-curator Katherine Blood told me in a walk-through. The watercolors are “the heartbeat” of the exhibit, added Blood, the Library’s Curator of Fine Prints.
The watercolors’ titles, like so many things Japanese, are poetic: “Cart Turning Back”, named for the vehicle once used to transport the Imperial family and other dignitaries to view the blossoms, and turn around to take another look. It’s the “signature” illustration for the exhibit, Blood noted. Other titles include “God of Longevity” (cherry blossoms symbolize, among many other things, the shortness of life); “White Snow”; and “Daybreak”.
· Accordion book “Plum Blossoms in Early Spring” by Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858), part of the series ” One-Hundred Famous Views of Edo”. Plum blossoms (“ume“), the first important bloom of spring, preceded the cherry blossoms as key symbols.
· Three representations of “hanami” (flower viewing parties) — with plenty of warm sake. The sake accompaniment has long been traditional, Blood noted in explaining an 18th-century depiction of a hanami party by Kitao Shigemasa.
· Replica of an 1860s stereograph machine, offering 3-D views of late 19th century photos of cherry blossom scenes.
· Beaded bag given to 1974 Cherry Blossom Princess Emily Howie by the then- Japanese Ambassador to the US. Co-curator Mari Nakahara told me during the walk- through that when she and Howie visited the Japanese Ambassador two years ago, he told them that due to the economy, the gifts more recently were just ballpoint pens.
Although the exhibit focuses on the Japan-US friendship, of course, the exhibit does not shy away from the World War II era. One non-friendly symbolism was the command to kamikaze suicide aviators to “fall like beautiful cherry petals after a short life.” World War II-related items in the exhibit include:
· Political cartoon by Herbert Block (Herblock) shows an anxious FDR kneeling (!) while tending withering olive branches near hardy blossoming cherry trees.
· 1934 radio speech by Japan’s Ambassador Hiroshi Saitō during the crucial pre-war years from 1934 to 1938. He was deeply committed to peace. He wrote that the cherry blossom is “the soul of Japan, the symbol of all the Japanese adored and aspired to.”
· Photograph of a crowd viewing the Tidal Basin trees in March 1945, despite suspension of the Cherry Blossom Festival during World War II. Several visitors are in military uniform. Days after the Pearl Harbor attack, four of the trees were cut down in suspected retaliation. In hopes of avoiding more damage, the trees were re-dubbed “Oriental” cherries during the war.
Related events include talks by the exhibit’s two curators (both wore pearl cherry blossom pins): and by former Cherry Blossom Princesses, including the very first one in 1948; plus a “Manga” (Japanese illustrated comic books) event.
And be sure to see two of the original trees — one propped up by a crutch, and the other gloriously robust — behind the majestic Jefferson Building.
As curator Blood said, during this centennial year, “The city is having a ‘hanafubuki‘ (cherry blossom blizzard).
For more info: “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship” www.myloc.gov/Exhibitions/cherry-blossoms/Pages/default.aspxexhibit, at the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov, Graphic Arts Galleries, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, SE, Washington, DC, 202-707-8000. Now through September 15.”Sakura” events. National Cherry Blossom Festival, www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org. “Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival” (National Geographic) by Ann McClellan, photographs by Ron Blunt. World Footprints, www.worldfootprints.com.