As tourists descend on Washington, D.C., over the next two weeks for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, the event will be even more connected to its Japanese roots. Some of the proceeds from this year’s festival will be directed towards relief efforts in Japan following the earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear developments that have rocked the nation. The gesture marks just one more connection between Japan and the United States, which have shared a fascinating connection over the last century.

The early years: Planning, planting, burning and re-planting

Everything starts with a plan. For the Cherry Blossom Festival, the planning began when Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore — who incidentally went on to become the first female board member of the National Geographic Society — returned form a trip to Japan. Scidmore wanted to plant cherry blossoms along the newly reclaimed banks of the Potomac River, and she shared her idea with the superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. Her idea was tabled, but the young Scidmore continued to raise the issue for the next 24 years, according to the National Park Service.

While Scidmore kept pushing for the plantings, a stream of individuals would bring cherry blossom trees to the Washington area to hold viewings during these years. At one such viewing, Scidmore and botanist David Fairchild met each other. Fairchild decided to have 100 cherry trees from the Yakohama Nursery Company imported to his property in Chevy Chase, Md., where the trees were planted and flourished. By 1907, 300 cherry trees had been planted around Chevy Chase, and a year later, Fairchild donated saplings to every Washington, D.C., school for planting on Arbor Day. The next year, Scidmore wrote a letter to first lady Helen Herron Taft to inform the president’s wife of plans to raise money to purchase and plant the trees that seemed so perfect for the region. Taft approved.

Having the first lady on board was a good thing, but the interest of a world-renowned Japanese chemist who was in town also made things better. The chemist, Jokichi Takamine, got in touch with the first lady and convinced her to accept a gift of more than 2,000 Japanese cherry trees for the city. On Jan. 6, 1910, the 2,000 trees arrived, but the plan hit a snag when the Department of Agriculture declared the trees to be infested with insects and nematodes, a roundworm-like parasite. President William Howard Taft ordered that the trees be burned. Takamine, embarrassed by the whole ordeal, arranged another donation; this time the number was 3,200 cherry trees.

On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, planted the first two trees at the Tidal Basin. Over the next eight years, the rest of the trees were planted, and the United States returned the courtesy by sending dogwood trees to Japan. In 1927, a group of school children in D.C. reenacted the first planting, and in 1934, the city sponsored a three-day celebration of the flowering trees.

World War II and rebuilding relationships

Days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, four cherry trees were cut down along the Potomac River. While it was never proven, it has been widely rumored that the destruction was related to the Japanese attack. The obvious tensions between the two nations resulted in the renaming of the trees to “Oriental flowering cherry trees,” which apparently was seen as less offensive. The renaming was also intended to dissuade further destruction of the trees during the war — and it worked. As for the festival that had began a decade earlier, it was suspended for the duration of the war. By 1947, the festival was back in action.

In 1952, Japan needed America’s help in restoring a cherry tree grove in Tokyo. The National Park Service sent some of the trees from the Potomac back to Japan to help with the restoration. By 1954, Japan presented a 300-year-old stone lantern to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Friendship of 1854. By 1965, it was another first lady, this time Lady Bird Johnson, accepting more gifts from Japan as 3,800 more trees were sent from Japan to Washington. The trees were planted throughout the city and, for the first time, around the Washington Memorial. During the acceptance ceremony, first lady Johnson and Ryuji Takeuchi, the wife of Japanese ambassador to the U.S. at the time, reenacted the original planting ceremony from back in 1912.

In the early 1980s, a flood destroyed a huge swath of cherry trees in Japan. To help out, horticulturists sent clippings from the Washington cherry trees back to Japan along with more than a $100,000 in private funds to restore the ornamental cherry tree population. In all, the funding helped plant nearly 700 trees.

Present day

The Cherry Blossom Festival has expanded from a few days to one week and now two full weeks of blossom-viewing and cultural festivities. But beyond the beauty, the festival represents a long and complicated connection between two nations. These nations have a history of helping one another, and given the present circumstances in Japan, it is only appropriate that the Cherry Blossom Festival is lending a hand across the ocean.

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