Category Archives: Japan

Eliza Scidmore, First National Geographic Woman Explorer

Eliza Scidmore is best known, if at all,  for her role as the earliest visionary of Washington’s cherry trees. She was also an intrepid traveler. And the National Geographic Society considers her its first female explorer.

The Geographic’s blog recently featured some of its pioneering women. I kicked off the series with a piece  about  Scidmore.

Scidmore was admitted as a member of National Geographic in 1890, two years after its founding. The Society’s leaders elected her corresponding secretary in 1892, making her the first female board member.

She won the scientists’ respect especially for her writings on Alaska, a place not yet known to most Americans.

The United States had owned Alaska only 16 years when Scidmore went there for the first time in the summer of 1883. Mail steamers, which made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage, offered the only means of getting to and from Alaska.

Scidmore traveled aboard the Idaho. Here’s a picture of the ship.

The “Idaho,” anchored at Carroll’s Wharf in Juneau in 1887. (Source: Alaska State Library)

That voyage made history.

Scidmore, already a young newspaper correspondent for a number of years, reported on the month-long journey. The highlight came when the Idaho ventured off the known route and sailed into the upper reaches of Glacier Bay.

The captain, James Carroll, had heard stories of the bay’s magnificent glaciers from local Indians, who hunted in the area, and from John Muir, who had explored the area by canoe a few years earlier.

Curious, Carroll decided to push north through the icy, uncharted waters in hopes of seeing the glaciers. He guided the ship to about an eighth of a mile from the front of the massive glacier he later named for John Muir.

So Scidmore and her fellow passengers were Glacier Bay’s first tourists.

She repeated the journey the following summer, again writing about the trip. She expanded her newspaper dispatches into a book-length narrative of her travels, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago.

Published in 1885, the book is now considered the first guidebook on Alaska. It became popular when an Alaska cruise industry sprang up at the end of the 19th century.

Scidmore returned to Alaska at least half a dozen times, reporting for several newspapers and magazines — including the fledgling National Geographic.

 

Here’s a home-made video I made describing her pioneering 1883 journey. (Some of the photos are representative only, and a sharp reader in Alaska pointed out I mistakenly used a different ship named the Idaho.)

Scidmore’s works also include a much more comprehensive version of her 1885 book,  Appleton’s Guide-Book to Alaska.

Today, in recognition of her early expertise on the area, Scidmore has landmarks in Alaska named for her: Mount Ruhamah and Scidmore Glacier and Bay.

Geographic Writer

In a 25-year affiliation with the National Geographic Society, Scidmore published about a dozen articles in the magazine, as well as photographs. She was probably the first woman to have photos in National Geographic Magazine, and also helped the editor acquire images from other sources in the Far East.

My online article describes her article in the September 1896 issue reporting on a deadly “earthquake wave” that hit the northeast coast of Japan that June. It killed 20,000 people and wiped out entire fishing villages.

In her article, Scidmore introduced American readers to a Japanese word that we now use commonly in English: tsunami.

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Japan’s Koyasan, a Century After Eliza Scidmore Saw It

Shingon monks at Mount Koya (Source: Jim Harper, on Wikipedia)

Koyasan, a mountainous area of temples in southeastern Japan, is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The New York Times ran an article about it in the Oct. 22 travel section. Eliza Scidmore wrote about the site in 1907 for National Geographic Magazine. It’s interesting to see the different takes on the same place a century apart.

A monk known as Kobo-Daishi chose the site 1,200 years ago to serve as the center of an esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism. Buddhism supports various paths by which someone can reach the elevated state of being freed from suffering and its repetition through continuous rebirth. The Shingon sect emphasizes the practice of daily ritual as a means to reach that enlightenment.

In her article, Eliza Scidmore wrote, with the note of irreverence she includes in many of her travel writings:

“One meets memorials and traditions of Kobo Daishi in every part of Japan, but at Koyasan he is naturally all-pervading and extreme. That forceful person could have known no rest during his brief span of sixty years, for ten men could hardly have built all the temples and shrines, carved the statues, painted the pictures, planted the pine and camphor trees, climbed the mountains, lighted the lanterns, started the sacred flames, or performed all the miracles attributed to him.”

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‘On the Hunt’ for Cherry Blossoms With a Japanese Film Crew

Japan’s TBS network aired an hour-long program March 18 in its  “Mystery Hunter” series in which I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s role in bringing cherry trees to Washington. I was interviewed for the show last month.

From left, reporter Nakada Asumi, assistant director Hoshuyama Aki, me, production coordinator Keiji Jinn Nishimura (in glasses, center), director Suzuki Yohei, audio man Sakuma Toshimi and camera man Fukumoto Noriyuki.

I spent several hours with the film crew on the weekend of February 4. What a hard-working bunch they were. They arrived at our house in Falls Church, Va., just a few hours after flying in from Japan–then did four hours of taping, including translations! Our yellow sun room felt cozy. Birds at the feeder outside the picture window made a nice touch in the film.

The group was thrilled I had a first-edition copy of Scidmore’s 1892 book Jinrikisha Days in Japan.” I found it on eBay a few years ago for fifty bucks, and though it’s fragile and crumbly, it’s wonderful to see in the original form.

For the TV program — a mix of game show and field adventure — I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s vision of creating a “Mukojima on the Potomac,” inspired by a mile-long avenue of cherry trees in Tokyo a century ago. I visited Mukojima in 2013.

We met again on a chilly Sunday in Potomac Park, where the original cherry trees donated from Japan were planted in March 1912.

Potomac Park in mid-winter was bleak. And the weather was especially cold for Washington. Fortunately, as production coordinator Keiji “Jinn” Nishimura (back center) told me, they also filmed the cherry trees in bloom last spring, so they have footage of the peak blooming season.

It was a joy to meet and work with such talented professionals.

After leaving me at mid-afternoon on Sunday, they headed off across town to film … the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl!

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Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Media & Outreach, Research

Japanese POW Treatment and Eliza Scidmore’s Last Book

My husband and I recently watched a powerful film called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It was interesting in light of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

Her last book was As the Hague Ordains, a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. “The Railway Man” is based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II. Together, they present a sharp contrast. Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore as Wall Art

“Eliza and the Emperor.” That’s the title of an Eliza-inspired mixed-media canvas produced last year for the Carlyle Hotel in Washington by artist Anna Rose Soevik.

ElizaCarlyleMural_AnnaRoseSoevik_2015

“Eliza and the Emperor,” mixed media on canvas, by Anna Rose Soevik

Sovevik, who studied painting in London, lives and works near Washington. She likes big canvases and has done art installations at offices, bookshops and galleries around Washington and in several countries. Her work includes a series of portraits of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga, and Elvis Costello.

Her description of the Eliza piece is as creative as the art.

Eliza Scidmore and her cat sailed over the rainbow to Japan. She fell head over heals in love with Emperor Keita’s cherry trees and spent many many years finding the perfect spot for the trees in America. She brought back seeds and trees in a beautiful Pea Green Boat. Finally the cherry trees took root around the Jefferson memorial. The birds got a new home and the fish jumped for joy. To celebrate a Japanese lantern was lit, and the Cherry Blossom Festival began.

To my knowledge Eliza never had a cat, though she did have a small lapdog late in life that she spoiled rotten.

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‘Mukojima,’ the Tokyo Park Behind D.C.’s Cherry Trees

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910

It’s now blooming season in Washington. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. It’s our own “Mukojima on the Potomac,” as Eliza Scidmore envisioned it more than a century ago, inspired by a popular cherry tree park in Tokyo.

Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage to see the cherry blossoms on Saturday morning, under a clear but very chilly sky. We’ve learned over the years it’s best to go at early daybreak, when the huge crowds of tourists are just waking up or at breakfast. We can usually zip into town and find off-street parking not too far from the National Mall.

Today is the official birthday of the trees. The first ones, from a shipment of 3,000 donated by Japan, were planted on March 27, 1912.

Eliza Scidmore started pushing the idea of cherry trees in Potomac Park during her extensive travels to Japan beginning in the 1880s. She loved the ancient ritual known as hanami, or cherry-tree viewing, when all the Japanese people turned out to admire the blossoms and mingle beneath the branches.

One of her biggest inspirations was Mukojima, where cherry trees stretched for a mile along the east bank of the Sumida River in Tokyo.

Below are some photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there. See more wonderful images at this website featuring vintage postcards of old Tokyo.

Ramble under the cherry trees, around the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Takashima, 1897)

Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

 

Hand-colored postard of Mukojima

Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima

 

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s Mukojima, from Frank Brinkley's 10-volume “Japan”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”

Mukojima was originally a royal hunting grounds during Japan’s Tokugawa era. The area was a short ferry ride across the river from a temple district, and after one of the shoguns planted an orchard of flowering cherries, common folk went every spring to admire the trees in bloom.

The country’s literati visited Mukojima for inspiration, and the wealthy elite built retreats nearby. But the site also remained popular with the public.

Early in the 20th century, Scidmore described Mukojima as something of a “people’s park” that drew hordes of Japanese from all walks of life. They picnicked under the trees and drank saké; pinned poems to the branches and let the tissue-thin strips of paper blow away in the wind. Entertainers and vendors gave it a carnival-like atmosphere. Eliza loved the joviality and spirit of goodwill that hanami seemed to bring out in people.

I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan in 2013. The setting is certainly more modern, but the spirit apparently hasn’t changed.

Today, the crowds that circle the Tidal Basin in Washington photographing the blossoms and taking selfies in front of the trees — the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial looming in the background — are enacting that same ritual of hanami.

It’s the very experience Eliza Scidmore wanted to re-create in Washington.

Surviving Japanese cherry tree planted in 1912 on the grounds of the Library of Congress, between the Jefferson and Adams buildings (Photo: D. Parsell)

It took three decades for her to see her dream become a reality, thanks to the support of First Lady Helen Taft. Scidmore — then in her 50s — was one of only three special guests at the small private ceremony by the Tidal Basin when Mrs. Taft planted the first cherry tree by the Tidal Basin, and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Madame Iwa Chinda, planted the second one.

Remarkably, those first two trees are still standing. They are west of the John Paul Jones statue, just south of a Japanese lantern donated later  by Japan. A plaque marks the historic event.

The life of cherry trees is typically about 40 years, so these two are real survivors. Gnarled and misshapen from lost limbs, but gallantly hanging on, thanks to the loving attention of the National Park Service. Many of the original 3,000 trees have had to be replaced over the years.

There’s another hardy survivor on the grounds of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, where I go often to do research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The tree is so old and unbalanced it’s heavy surviving limb is propped up by a crutch.

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A ‘Pen Pal’ History Buff in Japan

Ichiro Fudai at home in Hanamaki, Japan

This is Ichiro Fudai. We’ve never met. But Ichiro and I have corresponded online since he learned about my book project on Eliza Scidmore through a TV program that aired during my research trip to Japan in 2013. Ichiro contacted me about a connection in his hometown of Hanamaki.

Ichiro, who has visited the United States and has excellent command of English, lives in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture. A close friend of Eliza Scidmore late in life, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, hailed from there.

Trained as an agronomist, Dr. Nitobe became a statesman and worked for the League of Nations in Geneva. That’s where Eliza spent her final years. She socialized with Nitobe and his American-born wife, Mary. Continue reading

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In Boston, Biographers and a Letter by Eliza Scidmore

Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.

I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found a letter that helped me resolve a question that turned up when I was doing research in Japan.

Happy campers at the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, all of us members of a book-writing group in Washington. From left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

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At America’s First World’s Fair, Eliza Scidmore and … Irish Oatmeal!

When you’re working on a book involving U.S. history, you see connections everywhere.

The latest for me is steel-cut oats, which I love for their chewy nuttiness. Oatmeal really fuels you to start the day, without the hunger pangs I usually get around 11:00 when I have my other standard breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and meusli. The only drawback is that old-fashioned oatmeal takes 30 minutes to cook.

While waiting for the pot to boil a few days ago, I noticed an intriguing link to a chapter I’m working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

The steel-cut oats I bought are imported from Ireland under the company name “John McCann.” The arty label — if it’s not just a fake marketing ploy — features a “Certificate of Award” for the product from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. That was America’s first World’s Fair, held for the 100th anniversary of U.S. independence.

The exposition is where Eliza Scidmore made her reporting debut, at the age of 19, writing for a Washington newspaper.

http://www.lcpimages.org/centennial/img/Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6.jpg

Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition

Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Colombian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

Eliza Scidmore was there too. The Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the first big event of its kind in the United States, and most Americans had never seen anything like it. During the six-month run, from May to November 1876, it drew about 9 million visitors. The admission fee was 50 cents.  Continue reading

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Marking the Anniversary of Eliza Scidmore’s Death

November 3 was the anniversary of Eliza Scidmore‘s death. Today I received photos from Mina Ozawa and Kaoro Onji, who paid a visit to Eliza’s gravesite in Yokohama. I met both woman last spring during a research trip to Japan. Together they work to keep the memory of  Eliza Scidmore alive through an annual memorial ceremony at her gravesite during cherry tree season in Japan. I found the somber tone of this autumn photo touching compared with the cemetery as I saw it in April, when the overhanging cherry tree was in glorious bloom.

Eliza Scidmore’s gravesite in Yokohama on the Nov. 3 anniversary of her death (Photo: Mina Ozawa)

Eliza Scidmore died in 1928 while living in Geneva, Switzerland, at 31 Quai du Mont Blanc, overlooking Lake Geneva. A young cousin from Madison, Wisconsin, Mary Atwood, was living with her at the time. Eliza fell ill in early October and underwent an emergency appendectomy. She appeared to be recovering, but failed to rally fully and died on Nov. 3. She was 72.

She left instructions saying she wanted no funeral, but a group of friends in Geneva held a small memorial service. Some of them appealed to the family to have her ashes returned to Japan so she could be laid to rest with her mother and brother. That’s where she rests today, in the Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama.

One U.S. newspaper that reported Eliza’s death wrote:

“It is probable, and indeed it has been conceded in Europe and this country, that no American woman had a more cosmopolitan assembly of friends or more varied interests of work than Miss Scidmore has enjoyed.”

 

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New York’s Sakura Park, and a Hop Over to Brooklyn

In New York recently for the annual Biographers International Organization conference, I followed some research leads for my biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

One morning I went to the Brooklyn Museum with a writing colleague to track down an important document. Another day I took a very long walk — 80 blocks, in fact — from my hotel to W. 122nd Street. My destination was Sakura Park, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Sakura Park in New York (Photo: Diana Parsell)

We hear a lot about the cherry trees Japan donated to Washington in 1912. But few people know a similar shipment of trees was planted in New York around the same time. It was the project of a group that called themselves the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York. They arranged to donate a couple thousand cherry trees for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, marking the centennial of Robert Fulton’s demonstration of a steam-powered boat on the Hudson River and the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river.

The committee of Japanese residents included Jokichi Takamine. He was one of the founders of the Japan Society in New York, which Eliza Scidmore joined. His elegant Beaux-Arts townhouse at 334 Riverside Dr. garnered attention for its splendid Japanese-style interior. An acquaintance of Eliza Scidmore, Dr. Takamine played a critical role in bringing cherry trees to Washington.

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Eliza Scidmore, Jokichi Takamine and ‘Homecoming Trees’

Plaque describing the role of Jokichi Takamine and Eliza Scidmore in Japan’s cherry tree gift to Washington (Photo: D. Parsell)

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.

Jokichi Takamine

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. Continue reading

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The Eliza Scidmore Society

When I started this blog a year ago, my first post was a photo of Eliza Scidmore’s grave site in Yokohama, sent to me by a Japanese friend. I knew at the time I would have to travel to Japan to do research for my book on Eliza, and to see her grave site.

Today I joined members of the Eliza Scidmore Cherry Blossom Society (Sakura-no-Kai) at an annual memorial service at her grave.

Kaoru Onji places flowers at Eliza Scidmore’s grave in Yokohama. “Eliza Catherine Scidmore” on the tombstone is the name of her mother, first buried at the site. (Photo: Diana Parsell)

Kaoru Onji, a retired professor of organic chemistry, coordinates the activities of the Eliza Scidmore Society. Assisting her is Mina Ozawa, director of the Yamate Museum. This year about three dozen members of the Society and other guests gathered amid fierce winds for the brief ceremony, then enjoyed a buffet luncheon.

The society grew from a group of people who shared an interest in Eliza Scidmore‘s story after her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan was translated into Japanese. In 1987 they visited her grave during cherry-blossom season to pay tribute. The ritual has continued. Today the group has about 50 members. Continue reading

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A Gift of ‘Sakura’

NHK television in Japan featured on its evening news program last Saturday (March 30) a 10-minute segment about my research on Eliza Scidmore. It included scenes at a popular spot in Tokyo for viewing sakura (cherry blossoms).

Among the viewers who responded was Akira Yamamoto. His chief hobby is photography, and he thought I might like having a photo he took that captured the meaning of sakura in Japan — the spirit of goodwill associated with cherry-blossom viewing.

With Akira Yamamoto and his photo of “sakura” (Photo by Yoshiko Yamamoto)

He and his wife, Yoshiko, invited me for coffee. When I met them today they presented me with a gift of the black-and-white photo, beautifully mounted in a frame. I look forward to hanging it in my office back home in Washington as a wonderful reminder of my trip to Japan. Continue reading

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Yokohama Nursery Company

Trademark coat (Photo: D. Parsell)

That coat. I knew it at first glance.

In Yokohama to do research for my book on Eliza Scidmore, I took a bus across town Friday morning to attend a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees at Honmoku Sanchou Park. They were part of a consignment of 3,000 dogwood trees that America gave to Japan last year in exchange for Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington 100 years ago.

The mayor of Yokohama and the U.S. ambassador to Japan were on hand for the event. But what caught my eye was the back of the Japanese gentleman who took the seat in front of me. He was wearing an indigo-blue cotton coat emblazoned with the words “The Yokohama Nursery Co.” Turns out he was the company’s executive vice president, Kazua Ariyoshi.

Gardener at Yokohama Nursery, 1901 (Photo: David Fairchild, “The World Was My Garden”)

I remembered seeing  a photo of that coat — or one very much like it — in David Fairchild’s memoir The World Was My Garden.

Fairchild was a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who traveled the world seeking different kinds of edible and ornamental plants to import to the United States. During a plant-prospecting trip to Japan in 1902 he learned about the country’s flowering cherry trees and their beautiful blooms. Fairchild imported several varieties in 1906, a few years before they were planted in West Potomac Park, to test their growing qualities in an experimental garden he established at his country home just outside Washington, D.C.

Fairchild described visiting the Yokohama Nursery Co. and the friendship he developed with one of the owners, Uhei Suzuki.

Color plate from seed and bulb catalog of the Yokohama Nursery Company, 1909-10

The nursery, founded by a coalition of gardeners in 1893, did a booming business shipping plants to buyers in the West. It had branch offices in New York and London. The company’s most popular export was lily bulbs, but it also provided many other plants, including shrubs, ferns and trees.

Eliza Scidmore visited the nursery during her frequent travels to Japan. She wrote a lot about the Japanese passion for flowers and gardens — a trait I’ve seen in the past two weeks during my trip here. Scidmore described the Japanese as “necromancers” who coaxed something magical from plants.

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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore’s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at Mukojima. The original mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River was the chief inspiration for Scidmore’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo, an inspiration for Eliza Scidmore in the late 19th century (Photos: Diana Parsell)

It wasn’t just the blossoms that Scidmore wanted to import. She loved the celebrations when the Japanese turned out in droves to see the trees in peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking.

The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!

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Off to Japan, in Eliza Scidmore’s Footsteps

By the Tidal Basin in Washington with reporter Miki Ebara, in front of the first two cherry trees from Japan planted on March 27, 1912, and a 300-year-old lantern from Japan (Source: NHK TV)

A busy Saturday. I just spent five hours with a film crew from the New York bureau of Japan’s NHK television, talking about my research on Eliza Scidmore.

Miki Ebara, the chief correspondent in New York,  first contacted me a year ago not long after I launched this blog. She covers disasters as part of her duties and was familiar with Eliza Scidmore’s reporting on the great tsunami on the northeast coast of Japan in 1896.

Miki and I reconnected several weeks ago when I started thinking about making a trip to Japan for some necessary research. Cherry blossom season seemed the best time to go, so things have moved along very quickly. I’m off early next week. First trip to Japan.

Because she shares my fascination with Eliza, Miki decided to do a news feature on the cherry trees in Washington with a segment on my research and what I’ve learned about Eliza’s life. The show is scheduled to air on March 30, when the trees in Japan should be at peak bloom.

Eliza has become increasingly well known in Japan because of her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan and her role in bringing cherry trees to Washington, so there’s much curiosity about her. There’s even an information sign about her posted outside one of Yokohama’s metro stations, near the cemetery where she’s buried. Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore and Earthquakes in Japan

Last Friday a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck in the seabed of the Pacific Ocean about 150 miles off the northeastearn coast of Japan. It caused severe shaking, but no reported deaths, along a coastal area known as Sanriku.

That’s near the region devastated in March 2011 by the catastrophic 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed about 19,000 people and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Aftermath of earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s Sanriku coast, 1896 (Photo from “National Geographic”)

Sanriku lies in an area of the world prone to earthquakes because of the underlying plate tectonics. More than a century ago, Eliza Scidmore reported on the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast on the evening of June 15, 1896. Her article appeared in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic.

The 1896 earthquake erupted many miles offshore, triggering a wave of water that swelled as high as 80 feet by the time it hit land in some places.

The news of the disaster was slow to reach Tokyo and Yokohama. Eliza was in Japan at the time, and after reports began filtering in, she wrote an article for National Geographic.

Fishermen who were far out to sea were oblivious to the event when it occurred, she noted. Some later reported feeling only a slight wave passing beneath their boats. It caused little alarm because tremors were common in the region. Returning home the next morning they found the shore littered with their splintered homes and the bodies of their loved ones.

The giant wave of water leveled everything in its path for 175 miles along the coast. More than 20,000 people lost their lives.

Those who survived, Eliza wrote, described how they ran to high ground crying “Tsunami! Tsunami!” (See my article about it on National Geographic’s website.)

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Guest Blog Post on Eliza Scidmore

Ken Ackerman, the author of books on J. Edgar Hoover, “Boss” Tweed and other larger-than-life characters, writes a blog on people, politics and the world, Viral History. He offered me space today to write about Eliza Scidmore while the cherry trees are in bloom. Visit his blog and check out my post.

Hand-colored photo of geishas at a tea ceremony, from the early 1900s, in National Geographic’s Eliza Scidmore collection of photos. The high quality and studio setting suggests the photo may have been by a professional and acquired by Eliza. (Source: National Geographic)

 

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Happy Birthday, D.C. Cherry Trees!

Helen Taft in 1908, a year before she became First Lady and planned the cherry tree project in Washington (Source: UDSA)

The cherry trees are blooming, and Washington is now celebrating a special event: the centennial of its first trees donated by Japan. On March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife stood alongside the Tidal Basin  and planted the first of 3,000 flowering cherry trees sent from the mayor of Tokyo. Eliza Scidmore was one of the few people present that day.

Read my article about it on National Geographic’s “News Watch.”

 

 

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Eliza Scidmore Profile in ‘The Washington Post’

The special cherry blossom section in today’s Washington Post had a good article about Eliza Scidmore by staff reporter Michael Ruane. Includes quotes by me based on a phone interview.

Hand-colored photo of cherry trees in Japan, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

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Smithsonian Collection of Eliza Scidmore’s Photos

Chilkat women and girls in Alaska, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Remember back in the ’60s and ’70s when travel was such a big deal that everyone took hundreds of slides? And insisted on sharing them. As you sat for what seemed like hours watching poorly cropped and focused images projected on a white sheet hung across a wall in the living room. Today, with cellphones, digital cameras, TV shows and relatively cheap air fares, we’re all so jaded about the wonders of distant places.

In Eliza Scidmore‘s day, travel was still exotic. The Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives has a collection of photos and lantern slides she took during her travels. They’re held by the Smithsonian because it loaned Eliza some photographic equipment. Continue reading

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At National Geographic, Eliza Scidmore and Samurai

Rice worker in Japan heading home, in the National Geographic’s Eliza Scidmore collection (Source: National Geographic)

Photographs from Eliza Scidmore’s days in Japan are going on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington starting today. The exhibit is twinned with an exhibit on samurai.

Included are two dozen hand-colored photos from the early 1900s, which the National Geographic attributes to Eliza Scidmore. Some were published in National Geographic; others are from the Society’s archives and have never been shown before. Proper crediting of photos was a murky practice a century ago so whether Eliza Scidmore took many of them herself or collected them from other photographers is unclear.

Scidmore was affiliated with National Geographic for nearly 20 years, after she joined the Society in 1890.

The related exhibit offers a very different view of samurai than the images we have of feudal warriors from the 12th to the early 19th centuries.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the samurai lost their status as a privileged class. Many sons of samurai families received a Western-style education to prepare them as diplomats, teachers, and future leaders.

Samurai warrior, c.1877, Stillfried and Anderson, hand-colored photo (Source: Library of Congress)

Not all samurai fared so well. Some had to enter service to survive — like Tatsu, whom Eliza met at a hotel in Yokohama. He had, she said, “the face of a Roman senator, with a Roman dignity of manner quite out of keeping with his broom and dustpan.”

The samurai followed a code of conduct known as bushidō, or “Way of the Warrior-Knight.”  It was loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. Nitobe Inazō introduced the concept to readers in the West in a book that became popular after the turn of the century.

The samurai exhibit runs March 7 to Sept. 3, 2012, at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall in downtown Washington. Tickets ($8 for adults) are required for admission.

 

 

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Eliza Scidmore and Other Women Writers at the Chicago World’s Fair

Women’s History Month begins this week. The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress is helping to kick off things with a presentation Friday afternoon, March 2, on a new scholarly work, Right Here I See My Own Books, about the special woman’s library assembled for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

I seemed to recall from my research that Eliza Scidmore reported on the fair. Revisiting my notes, I found an article she wrote for the Aug. 19 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine she was contributing to regularly at the time. 

It also made me wonder whether her work was represented in the woman’s library. I checked an online list of the titles. And yes, Eliza Scidmore was included!

The library contained copies of the three books she had published by that time: Alaska and the Sitkan  Archipelago, Jinrikisha Days in Japan and Westward to the Far East. Continue reading

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Historic Cherry Tree Art at the Library of Congress

Mothers and children in Tokyo, Helen Hyde, woodcut, 1914 (Source: Library of Congress)

With the 100th anniversary of Washington’s first cherry trees only six weeks away, on March 27, special exhibits and programs on sakura (cherry blossoms) are suddenly cropping up all over town. In late March the Library of Congress will open an exhibition of 54 prints and artworks from its collections that depict different scenes of cherry trees. The selections include watercolor drawings, Japanese woodblock prints, book illustrations, photographs, posters, postcards and editorial cartoons. I’ve posted a few enticing samples. Continue reading

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Washington’s New “It” Girl: Eliza Scidmore

Japanese girl in kimono, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Ah, the pain of hindsight. If only I’d stumbled upon Eliza Scidmore’s story sooner I might have a book coming off the presses in time for the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first cherry trees in Washington next spring, on March 27. Talk about the perfect book-signing opportunity!

When I began research on Eliza Scidmore it just didn’t hit me at first that the centennial was imminent. A lot had already been written about the cherry trees, and I was focused mainly on Eliza. Once I realized the significance of the date I sent queries late last year to several publications (Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, The Washingtonian) proposing an article on Eliza and the cherry trees, targeted to the anniversary. There were no takers.

Now, with the centennial just a few months away and a huge festival planned, Eliza — after being largely overlooked for a century — is emerging as the new “it” girl in town. Continue reading

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On Serendipity in Research

Serendipity is like the crack cocaine of research. It gives you a wonderful high.

I remember well the first time I came to understand the term. It was in the 1980s, and I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. For my science writing class, I interviewed several researchers on campus who were studying different aspects of cystic fibrosis. It’s an insidious disease in which a faulty gene and its protein product cause the body to produce a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and impedes proper digestion. A pediatrician was working to improve clinical observations; a pair of biochemists hoped to develop a reliable diagnostic test for the disease; another researcher was studying glandular secretions in a rat model.  Continue reading

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At Eliza Scidmore’s Grave Site in Yokohama

(Photo: Miho Kinnas)

Last week I received an e-mail from a Japanese friend that made my day. The message had a photo attached. When I opened it, there was a picture of Eliza Scidmore’s grave site in Yokohama! I knew from my reading that Eliza was interred at the Foreign General Cemetery. But here was physical evidence of it — a key landmark. Because of Eliza’s long and deep ties to Japan I’ll have to do some research there to investigate various strands of her life. In the meantime, I’m grateful to Miho Kinnas for serving as my eyes abroad. Continue reading

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