Nur­tur­ing a Legacy of Fleet­ing Blos­soms and En­dur­ing Bonds

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Pamela Con­sta­ble

The vis­i­tor from Ja­pan was small and frail, her face a thou­sand wrin­kles, her frame tiny in a turquoise tweed suit. At 96, her hear­ing was weak and her voice was barely au­di­ble.

But at a cer­e­mony yes­ter­day to plant a cherry tree near the Tidal Basin, where her fa­ther do­nated the first 3,000 such trees 95 years ago, Yukika Sohma wielded a pink- rib­boned shovel of dirt with sur­pris­ing strength.

When she spoke, it was with the grace and for­ti­tude of a wo­man who has spent a life­time qui­etly build­ing bridges be­tween Ja­pan and the United States through World War II and other times of ten­sion.

Sohma’s visit, spon­sored by the Na­tional Cherry Blos­som Fes­ti­val and the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Ho­tel in South­west Wash­ing­ton, was very much in the spirit of Yukio Ozaki, who as mayor of Tokyo in 1912 sent a shipment of 3,020 cherry trees to Wash­ing­ton in a ges­ture of friend­ship.

The del­i­cate pink- blos­somed trees and their de­scen­dants went on to be­come one of the cap­i­tal’s most beloved fea­tures. Last week their blooms peaked, draw­ing tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors. Now most blos­soms are gone, swept away by rain and wind, and the branches were dusted with snow early yes­ter­day.

“ One has to be tough,” said Sohma, perched on an arm­chair at

the Man­darin Ori­en­tal af­ter the tree- plant­ing. “ Even in the war years, when peo­ple wanted to cut the cherry trees down, there were some ladies who stopped them. If we keep our hearts open, we can al­ways do some good.”

Sohma’s daugh­ter Fu­jiko Hara, 67, who also trav­eled from Tokyo for the oc­ca­sion, spoke of her grand­fa­ther’s visit to Wash­ing­ton in 1950. She quoted from the speech in which he de­scribed Ja­pan and the United States as bound by an “ in­sep­a­ra­ble des­tiny” and urged them to form a moral al­liance.

“ Mother said her fa­ther was con­sid­ered a traitor for op­pos­ing the war. Even farm­ers re­fused to sell him veg­eta­bles,” she said.

The two women were joined by He­len Taft Man­ning Hunter, 85, a grand­daugh­ter of Pres­i­dent William Howard Taft, whose wife helped ar­range Ozaki’s gift. Ac­tu­ally, Hunter noted, there had been an ear­lier shipment of 3,000 trees, but they were burned on ar­rival be­cause U. S. agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials feared they might be in­fested with blight.

“ My grand­mother was fu­ri­ous, be­cause she thought as pres­i­dent he could change the law or fire the sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture,” she said with a chuckle.

Sohma’s re­count­ing of her life ex­pe­ri­ences in an in­ter­view af­ter the cer­e­mony of­fered glimpses into con­tem­po­rary Ja­panese his­tory and the char­ac­ter of Ozaki.

She de­scribed him as a so­cial mav­er­ick who al­lowed her to work as an English trans­la­tor when that was un­think­able in Ja­pan, took her on ed­u­ca­tional trips abroad when no univer­sity would ad­mit her and en­cour­aged her to be­friend neigh­bors from poorer classes. An ar­dent demo­crat, he served in Ja­pan’s par­lia­ment and was widely read in Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy.

“ My fa­ther was dif­fer­ent from oth­ers,” she said. “ He al­ways wanted to make a new Ja­pan.”

In 1931, when Ja­pan in­vaded Manchuria, now part of China, in an ex­pan­sion­ist move that partly led to World War II, Sohma said her fa­ther’s out­spo­ken op­po­si­tion nearly got him killed. Barely 20 then, she re­called peek­ing fear­fully through the cur­tains as two truck­loads of would- be as­sas­sins pulled up out­side their home. Through ac­quain­tances with lo­cal trades­men, she said, they were able to hide un­til the dan­ger passed.

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, Sohma also mar­ried an un­usual man she met on a ski trip: a Ja­panese lord from an old noble fam­ily. Like her fa­ther, she said, her late hus­band en­cour­aged her to work, and he helped change the tra­di­tional clan sys­tem into a fed­er­a­tion that uni­fied mod­ern Ja­pan. The cou­ple had four chil­dren.

Sohma ap­peared to de­light in yes­ter­day’s events, laugh­ing at jokes and trundling gamely out­side on a grand­son’s arm for the plant­ing. The ho­tel sur­round­ings were in keep­ing with the oc­ca­sion: sin­gle orchid blos­soms nes­tled on side ta­bles, cherry pas­tries art­fully ar­ranged on trays.

Along with the dom­i­nant theme of bi­lat­eral cor­dial­ity, there was a sub­text of mak­ing amends for dif­fi­cult mo­ments in U. S.- Ja­panese his­tory, when even the fa­mous cherry trees suf­fered. Af­ter the bomb­ing of Pearl Har- bor, for ex­am­ple, sev­eral were cut down at night, and the oth­ers were re­named ries.”

Five years af­ter the war ended, when Ozaki vis­ited Wash­ing­ton on an­other snowy day, he wrote and re­cited a poem that praised the beauty of the blos­soms over­head but hinted at the fragility of na­ture and hu­man re­la­tions. His grand­daugh­ter, Hara, re­cited the poem yes­ter­day.

“ Am I awake or do I dream, so gen­er­ous the wel­come here,” it read. “ Are th­ese at­ten­tions what they seem, or shad­ows that will dis­ap­pear?”

“ Ori­en­tal

cher- Yukika Sohma, 96, daugh­ter of for­mer Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki, talks with He­len Taft Man­ning Hunter, 85, grand­daugh­ter of for­mer U.S. pres­i­dent William Howard Taft. Ozaki sent the orig­i­nal cherry trees while Taft was in of­fice as a ges­ture of friend­ship.

Yukika Sohma en­joys a chilly but sunny day amid the cherry blos­soms with her grand­son Naomichi Hara.

“If we keep our hearts open, we can al­ways do some good,” Sohma says.

PHO­TOS BY CAROL GUZY — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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