Amidst Celebration, A Commemoration

Photo by Alan DeFelice, courtesy of FotoDC
Photo by Alan DeFelice, courtesy of FotoDC

It will all be the same. Thousands upon thousands of visitors will jam Washington’s Tidal Basin to see a miraculously beautiful work of nature when the National Cherry Blossom Festival commences Saturday, March 26 and runs for three weekends, sixteen days.

They will show up for the opening ceremonies at the National Building Museum, and they will jam the hillsides near the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall for traditional and contemporary Japanese and American performance artists throughout the festival. They will go to the spectacular Cherry Blossom Parade, to the Japanese street festival, to the lantern walks at the Tidal Basin.

The thousands will watch as the blossoms from these trees, lining the Tidal Basin near the Mall and Memorials, linger among the symbols and icons of our own brief heritage and history, with the bliss of their blossom beauty elevating them to a keener iconic status.

It will be the same as always—white and pink blossoms, astonishing beauty and sights, thousands walking or gawking from inside their cars. Hundreds of events, restaurant specials, street music and performances, talks and dancing, the click of thousands of digital cameras.

It will be like that, and then again it won’t. It will be the same, but hardly so. If petals can weep, they will be moist this year without the help of dew or rain.

In the wake of the gigantic 9.0 earthquake and immensely destructive tsunami that hit northern Japan, and the subsequent – and still ongoing -nuclear reactor crisis in the devastated area, it might be necessary to take the word “festival” out of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

“Commemoration” might be better, for what has happened to Japan lies like haze over everything in the festival. There is a blanket of sorrow accompanying us all even as we move among the trees that are perhaps the most precisely apt symbol we have on hand.

Traditionally the festival, which commemorates a long-standing relationship between the United States and Japan, is a celebration of the basic friendship between the two nations, both commercially and economically powerful movers in the modern world. The festival commemorates two gifts to the United States of cherry tree transplants from Japan. The first grove arrived in 1912: a gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaiki to the city of Washington DC, formalized with a ceremony in which First Lady Helen Heron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, together planted the first two trees on the North Bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. A second gift of trees came in the 1960s.

The Cherry Blossom Festival evolved over the years into a major tourist attraction that celebrated the early spring budding of the tree’s blossoms, and it is now a national event. And today and for some time to come, it is a sad one.

The Cherry Blossom tree, depending on what history and opinions you find, is much revered in Japan because of the short duration of the life of its blossoms. They create the kind of beauty that breaks your heart: the way a mother’s heart breaks on seeing her grown son in uniform, or a young boy’s heart breaks when he sees for the first time a truly beautiful girl who never looks at him.

Japanese culture, which includes the practice of Hanami or social gatherings like picnics for flower viewing, teaches that the cherry blossoms are even more beautiful because of their ephemeral lifespan , a lesson about the nature of life itself. If ever there was a need for the cherry blossom, it is now, because it teaches the same lessons of earthquakes and tsunamis—the uncertainty and brief duration of life. But the blossoms also symbolize renewal and rebirth and hope. If they are fleeting, they are so nonetheless a promise of peaceful and warm months to come.

Festival organizers have added a “Stand with Japan” event for March 24, at 6:30 p.m. at the Sylvan Theater. From there, attendees will walk to the Tidal Basin and reflect on the ongoing tragedy borne by the Japanese people. (Donations can also be made at that time.)

For over a week now, a book of condolences has stood open outside the Embassy of Japan. The latest reports place the number of deceased at 8,000, though the number of people that remain missing may raise that figure to roughly 18,000. Most buildings themselves actually withstood the earthquake itself —which broke all records for magnitude in Japan— fairly well, following the structural improvements made in the wake of the Kobe quake of the mid-nineties. Yet tsunami was devastating to coastal communities and the industrial centers of the Northeast. The Japanese economy has taken a huge hit. Nothing will be the same after this.

The Japanese people have suffered terribly, yet the survivors have shown an example of behavior and reaction to the world that others could only hope to emulate. Walking through the wreckage wrought by a tsunami that caused entire villages to simply disappear, scattering pieces of former homes for miles, the Japanese in the Sendai area, have proven to be proved to be incredibly stoic - not brittle and numb, as they have visibly grieved, but doing so without self-pity or hysteria. There were no reports of looting anywhere as there were in almost any other areas of the world where riots, political upheaval and natural disasters have struck in the past, including the United States.

In a matter of minutes, thousands died, disappeared, were swept away, lost everything they owned, saw their lives forever disappear in muck and mud and crumbling rock. Yet in this moment of devastation, the Japanese appeared to draw on their cultural traditions for remembered guidance. This is not necessarily a religious matter, but a question of codes of behavior, of honor and helping each other, of community and acceptance that life for humans, as for the cherry blossom, is brief.

The prime minister offered words of hope, and the Emperor himself went on national television: a public appearance that had not happened since the end of World War II. But it seemed to observers from thousands of miles away that the people themselves, full of an overwhelming sense of loss, were the ones who stood tall.

What changed all that was not so much Nature as the destruction of human artifacts: the instability set off at a collection of nuclear reactors in the Fukuskima prefecture. The burdens of the nuclear age resonate in Japan, the only country in the world ever to have suffered nuclear attacks. People began to evacuate, and then move far and further away, unable to trust the experts, the air, their food, their water, the sky itself. Uncertainty shook the Japanese people more than the earth did.

In the end, nature comes upon you wrathful and sudden, a wave of destruction that leaves the survivors lost, not knowing what happens next or when. So too is the Cherry Blossom dependent on the vagaries of wind, rain, the natural ways of the universe to last long enough to create a dazzling beauty that assuages us like clean, cold water in the desert. We are, in the midst of loss, astonished yet again.

This year as we walk among the blossoms, people will marvel. But the magnitude of what has happened will linger in the air like blossoms refusing to fall. As blogger/haiku poet John Tiong Chunghoo put it: “In the flurry of tsunami/death radio news/Cherry Blossoms Fall.”

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Mon, 1 Sep 2014 09:42:36 -0400

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