D.C.'s cherry blossoms and the sad story of Japanese family

Scenes from 2010¿s Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual rite of spring in Washington.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

Much of the story has been told before: The dignitaries gathered by the Tidal Basin. First lady Helen Taft used a new spade to plant the first cherry tree. Among those present were Eliza Scidmore, who had helped bring the trees to Washington, and an Army grounds superintendent.

It was March 27, 1912, the event that gave birth to the National Cherry Blossom Festival. But almost a century later, little is said of the other two VIPs there that day: Japanese Viscountess Iwa Chinda, who planted the second tree, and her husband, Sutemi Chinda, Japan's newly appointed ambassador to the United States.

They were an accomplished, dignified and tragic couple, having lost one son four years before in an explosion aboard a Japanese warship.

They would depart four years later with Washington the place of another heartbreaking calamity: the death of a second son, by his own hand.

The first planting -- to be marked Saturday by this year's festival kickoff at the National Building Museum -- was but a moment in history. There is little record of what transpired at the Tidal Basin. A weathered plaque, between two gnarled trees that are said to be the originals, offers a bare-bones summary. The newspapers carried only a few paragraphs, and no photographs appear to have survived.

Yet the planting sparked a tradition that would outlast some of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century. And it brought to Washington the lore of the fleeting blossoms and the ancient emblems of beauty, life and death.

An accomplished career

Although now largely forgotten, the Chindas had arrived amid fanfare the month before at the big stone mansion on K Street that served as the Japanese embassy, according to news reports of the time.

The papers tracked the couple as they left Japan, landed in Hawaii, reached San Francisco and Chicago, and arrived at Union Station the evening of Feb. 22, 1912.

"Almost all the world is at peace today, and will be at peace for thousands of tomorrows," the ambassador said during his stop in Chicago. "War has had its day."

The Washington Post ran several photographs of the handsome, mustachioed ambassador, cited his American college education and mentioned that he played golf and bridge. His wife was also photographed, often wearing furs, with a vague look of sadness on her face.

The ambassador was born in Hirosaki, in northern Japan, in the 1850s, only a few years after the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry's warships arrived at Tokyo Bay, "opening" Japan to the United States.

Chinda was educated by missionaries in Japan, learned English and reportedly became a Christian. In 1877, he was among four Japanese students who traveled to the United States to attend what is now DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

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