Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC. The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and the continued close relationship between the two countries.
It took the coordination of many to ensure the arrival of the cherry trees. A first batch of 2,000 trees arrived diseased in 1910, but did not deter the parties. Between the governments of the two countries, coordination by Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a world-famous chemist and the founder of Sankyo Co., Ltd. (today known as Daiichi Sankyo), Dr. David Fairchild of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Eliza Scidmore, first female board member of the National Geographic Society, and First Lady Helen Herron Taft, more than 3,000 trees arrived in Washington in 1912. In a simple ceremony on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park.
Over the years, gifts have been exchanged between the two countries. In 1915, the United States Government reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan. In 1981, the cycle of giving came full circle. Japanese horticulturists were given cuttings from the trees to replace some cherry trees in Japan which had been destroyed in a flood.
Since First Lady Taft’s involvement, the nation’s first ladies have been proponents of the Festival. Historically, many were involved in events through the National Conference of State Societies’ Princess Program. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower crowned Queen Janet Bailey in 1953, and in 1976 Betty Ford invited the princesses to the White House. In 1965, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson accepted 3,800 Yoshino trees from the government of Japan and held a tree planting reenactment. All first ladies in recent years have served as Honorary Chair, many participating as well. In 1999, First Lady Hillary Clinton took part in a tree planting ceremony. In 2001, First Lady Laura Bush greeted guests with remarks at the Opening Ceremony. Honorary Chair First Lady Michelle Obama was involved in 2012, planting a cherry tree in West Potomac Park among dignitaries and guests.
Today’s National Cherry Blossom Festival has grown from modest beginnings to the nation’s greatest springtime celebration. School children reenacted the initial planting and other activities, holding the first “festival” in 1927. Civic groups helped expand the festivities in 1935. The Festival expanded to two weeks in 1994 to accommodate a diverse schedule during the blooming period. Growing again in 2012, the 100-year anniversary of the gift was marked with a five-week celebration. Today, the Festival spans four weekends and welcomes more than 1.5 million people to enjoy diverse programming and the trees. Over the years, millions have participated in the annual event that heralds spring in the nation’s capital.