Wednesday, February 02, 2000

Taft's gift rooted in history

His grandfather gave trees first

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sojiro Ito, speaker of Japan's upper house of parliament, helps Gov. Bob taft plant a dogwood tree.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        TOKYO — Michinobu Kitani brought his hands together with glee Tuesday when he saw the dogwood tree that the governor of Ohio had given his organization.

        In the front of the meeting room, the speaker of the upper house of Japan's parliament was presenting Gov. Bob Taft with a “sakura” — a cherry tree.

        “Sakura and dogwood, very important symbol of friendship of Japan and United States,” Mr. Kitani, the gray-haired executive director of the Japan Walking Association, said in the best English he could muster.

        His association organizes a three-day “dogwood walk” in Tokyo each May when the trees bloom. Some 20,000 turned out last year, he said.

        Mr. Taft's presentation of 50 Ohio dogwoods to Japan in Tokyo was meant as a gesture of friendship, and it was a gesture served up just the way the Japanese like it — rich in history, tradition and symbolism.

        The tree exchange in Tokyo offered a great photo opportunity for the governor, halfway through his trade mission to Japan. But experts contend the event helped establish closer personal ties to Japanese corporate leaders and politicians, something that must happen if Ohio is to attract more Japanese investment.

        “The Japanese put tremendous emphasis on recognizing history and tradition, and if they can, continuing it,” said Christopher LaFleur, a minister from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

        “Gov. Taft, by coming to Japan and being here, carries forward a tradition of friendship and exchange that was begun by his relatives. It was very special for them. They appreciate that.”

        Gov. Taft's great-grand mother — Helen Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft — got the tradition started. Charged with beautifying Washington, D.C., after Mr. Taft's election as president in 1908, she recalled the cherry blossoms she'd seen as the Tafts had traveled through Japan, when Mr. Taft was governor of the Philippines.

        Her request for cherry trees arrived for Tokyo Mayor Ozaki Yukio with perfect timing, said Yukika Sohma, the former mayor's daughter, who attended Tuesday's ceremony.

        “At that time, during the Russo-Japanese war, America had helped Japan a great deal,” the 90-year-old said. “And he as mayor, he really wanted to find some way of thanking America. When he heard that Mrs. Taft was eager to have cherry blossom trees, he decided that was it.”

        The 2,000 trees Mayor Ozaki sent to the U.S. arrived by boat in 1909 infested and diseased. The lot of them were burned.

        “At the time when I heard this, I thought, "When your gift is burned, your first reaction is, well, that is that,'” Mrs. Sohma said. “But he said you've got to keep on with the aim and not to be disturbed.”

        The mayor then sent 3,000 more trees to America, some of which were planted in 1912 around the tidal basin in Washington, D.C. In return, the Tafts arranged for 50 dogwoods to be sent to Japan. Some were planted in Tokyo, and the rest were planted throughout the rest of Japan. But all 50 are dead.

        Keith Conroy, international business liaison for Ohio's Department of Development, suggested the governor renew this tradition during his trade mission to Japan.

        The presentation Tuesday was made in the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Hall at Kensei Kinenkan, a park across the street from the Diet Building, Japan's equivalent of the Capitol in Washington.

        One of the sponsors of the gift was the Japan Cherry Blossom Association. This is no gardening club. The group promotes cultural exchange and counts as members many of the most powerful and influential people in Japan.

        The speaker of the upper house of Japan's parliament, Sojiro Ito, serves double duty as head of the association.

        Tuesday's event played before a packed house at Ozaki Memorial Hall, and the event was serious and full of ceremony.

        Speaker Ito spoke solemnly for several minutes, without the benefit of a translator. Natsuko Shimizu, associate director of the Ohio's Asian trade office in Tokyo, was asked what he said.

        “Formalities,” she replied simply.

        The speeches from the Americans were as flowery as the trees will soon be.

        “Today as governor, I'm proud to re-enact the tradition started by my great-grandfather President Taft and my great-grandmother Helen Taft,” the governor told the crowd.

        “The relationship of Ohio and Japan is in the springtime. And it is my hope that as the Ohio dogwood trees grow, they will come to symbolize the deepening of the friendship between Ohio and Japan that will last for many, many years to come.”

        After the speeches, on a lawn above a noisy highway along the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, the governor was joined by the speaker, Mrs. Sohma and Mr. LaFleur in shoveling dirt onto newly planted dogwood and sakura trees.

        Ohio dogwoods are headed for Gifu, Cincinnati's sister city, and other sites around Japan.

        Mr. LaFleur said the cherry tree presented to Mr. Taft would probably remain in Japan to be planted at the U.S. Embassy, because it is difficult to ship. But the governor was also given cherry tree seeds, and those will be brought back to Ohio.

        But there will soon be other new cherry trees in Ohio: First lady Hope Taft said cherry trees started from cuttings from those sent by Mayor Yukio some 90 years ago would be planted outside the William Howard Taft birthplace in Cincinnati in April.

        As Mr. Taft's trade delegation continues to meet with executives of Japanese companies this week, look for Enquirer reporter John Byczkowski's reports from Tokyo.


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