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

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; B01

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.

After returning to Japan to teach school, Chinda married Iwa Sato, the sister of one of his Japanese college classmates. They would eventually have several children, including two sons, one of whom was a bespectacled student of economics named Masuyo.

The elder Chinda joined the Japanese foreign service, rapidly moving up in the ranks. In 1891, he was posted to San Francisco to serve as consul, at a time of growing immigration to the United States from Japan, a trend that would eventually produce great bitterness between the two countries.

He later became vice minister of foreign affairs, serving during Japan's bloody war with Russia in 1904-05, and in 1908 was named ambassador to Germany.

That same year, though, according to newspaper accounts, one of his sons was lost in an accidental explosion aboard an aging Japanese cruiser, the Matsushima -- a veteran of Japan's 1894 war with China. The French-built ship sank at an island port off of Taiwan. More than 200 sailors perished.

Four years later, Chinda and his wife headed to Washington, where he plunged into the whirl of diplomacy. He paid his first call at the State Department on Feb. 23, 1912. He was formally presented to President William Howard Taft at the White House on Feb. 27. On March 16, he spoke in New York, lauding the friendship between Japan and the United States.

Eleven days later, he and his wife stood with Helen Taft and the newly arrived cherry trees -- a gift, officially, of the city of Tokyo -- on the empty landscape around the Tidal Basin. (Both the Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial were years in the future.)

The first lady gave Iwa Chinda a bouquet of roses as a token of thanks.

A quiet tragedy

Two years later, the Chindas were joined at the embassy by Masuyo, then in his mid-20s, who enrolled in a master's program in political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

He was already a finely educated young man but, by one account, had an eye affliction that had periodically interrupted his studies. A photograph shows a pleasant-looking student in suit and tie, starched collar and rimless glasses.

At Hopkins, he worked for two years, earning the respect, affection, and admiration of professors and classmates. "His native gentleness and exquisite courtliness did not hide strength of character and devotion to duty," they wrote of him later.

By April 1916, in the depths of World War I, his father was about to be named ambassador to Great Britain and the younger Chinda had essentially finished work on his degree.

But on April 18, with many of the new cherry trees likely shedding their blossoms, Masuyo Chinda hanged himself in the embassy. A Hopkins professor, Jacob Hollander, later wrote that his death was a "direct consequence of . . . strain induced by over-work."

The death went unreported in Washington's four main newspapers and seems never to have been made public here. The only local record appears to be the death certificate still on file in the city archives, which indicates that the body was cremated April 20.

The next day, the elder Chinda kept a previously scheduled appointment at the White House to discuss with President Woodrow Wilson anti-Japanese legislation pending in Congress.

That June, about three weeks before he and his wife left for England, Chinda received a letter from Hollander.

The professor wished to inform him that "in consideration of the extent and quality of the work done by your son," his master of arts degree would be duly awarded. His name would be enrolled in the list of degree recipients, and "the corresponding diploma [would] be transmitted in due course" to his father.

"His sudden death prevented the final examination in Political Economy," Hollander wrote separately. "But there is no doubt whatever that he would have acquitted himself with credit . . . "

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