For 100 years, District of Columbia residents have reveled in a glorious rite of spring: the blossoming of thousands of cherry trees, a gift of friendship from the people of Japan. Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki donated 3,020 trees to first lady Helen Taft. She and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, planted the first two trees in Potomac Park on March 27, 1912. (A 1910 shipment of 2,000 trees was destroyed before planting because of insect infestation and disease.) Ozaki’s gift was a deft move in a diplomatic dance between the United States and Japan, both rapidly growing international powers with competing interests in the Pacific. In return, the U.S. sent flowering dogwoods to Japan in 1915. Today, some 3,700 trees grace the capital, and each year a million visitors flock to the city for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, one of Washington’s biggest events. The two original trees flank a stone marker on the National Mall near 17th Street SW.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.