Nurturing a Legacy of Fleeting Blossoms and Enduring Bonds

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, 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. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

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 Harbor, for example, several were cut down at night, and the others were renamed "Oriental cherries."

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?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company