Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques that mark the presence of cherry trees that have been grafted from the 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 the country.
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 “homecoming tree” plaques Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in making the cherry trees in Washington a reality. Eliza had wanted for years to see it happen. And Takamine had previously offered to buy cherry trees for parks in New York City, where he lived, but officials there had not been receptive.
Scidmore and Takamine knew one another well. When they learned of Mrs. Taft’s landscaping plans for Potomac Park, they both saw a chance to act. Takamine offered to personally buy trees for the beautification project—he thought a couple thousand would be a good number to make a fine display. The Japanese consul general in New York, Takamine’s travel companion in Washington, suggested it would be more appropriate, for reasons of protocol, to make the trees a gift from the Japanese people rather than an individual.
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.
Eliza Scidmore mediated the offer with her friend Mrs. Taft. One of the people I met with here gave me a copy of a letter Eliza sent to Mr. Midzuno, the consul general. In it she wrote:
“I had a long talk with Mrs. Taft this afternoon and she will be more than pleased to have the cherry trees offered as a gift from Japan.”
Takamine played a critical role in the events, although his involvement has been little acknowledged. He fully supported the follow-up efforts of Mayor Ozaki and the Japanese government in arranging the gift of the trees to America.
A wealthy businessman and innovative chemist, Takamine is sometimes called the “father of modern biotechnology.” By the early 1900s, he had made his fortune through a string of scientific breakthroughs. His most important was isolating and purifying the powerful hormone adrenaline. He also developed the first starch-decomposing enzyme—taka-diastase, named for him—and a new fermentation process for whiskey production, inspired by traditional methods of making saké and soy sauce.
To honor Takamine’s legacy, the Hokkokku Newspaper Company in his native area of Japan—its offices are in the city of Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture—teamed up with the Japan Cherry Blossom Association to plant “homecoming cherry trees.” Last week I went to see a couple of the newly planted trees with Kunihiko Nakada of the Yokohama Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Japan-America Society of Yokohama, which helped coordinate the local efforts.
Every year the Japan Cherry Blossom Association plants about 25,000 cherry trees around the country, on river banks, 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 on March 11, 2011.