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Planting Cherry Trees Creates Living Memorial to Japan’s Tsunami and Earthquake

Akebono Cherry March 24 2008

March 11 marks the fourth anniversary of the massive earthquake and accompanying tsunami that struck eastern Japan in 2011. The earthquake was the fourth strongest ever recorded anywhere. Together with an accompanying tsunami, it claimed more than 15,000 lives, with over 2,000 people still missing and presumed dead.  It was the costliest catastrophe to hit Japan since World War II. To commemorate it, the Japanese, like so many other cultures memorializing tragedies, are planting trees. But they are doing so in a unique way.

Over the next decade, some 17,000 pink-flowering cherry trees will be planted to mark the line where the tsunami unleashed by the 9.0 earthquake reached inland, in some cases six to 12 miles from the ocean. When fully planted, this living memorial will stretch for 105 miles. Everything seaward of where the trees will stand was engulfed by the roiling wall of seawater, which claimed more lives than the shaking ground. Proponents hope the memorial will help survivors of any future earthquake know how far inland they need to evacuate to be safe from a tsunami.

Cherry trees were a natural choice for the memorial because in Japan the lovely but short-lived blossoms symbolize life’s sweet beauty and its fragile, fleeting nature. For at least a thousand years the Japanese have been admiring cherry blossoms each spring in outings known as hanami, or cherry blossom viewing.

Cherry trees are also being planted here in the United States. A Japanese business executive has started planting cherry trees at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio to symbolize Japanese gratitude for flights of relief supplies, search and rescue missions, and reconstruction aid. This hearkens back to the first gift of Japanese cherry trees to this country a little over a century ago. Each April those trees bring thousands of visitors to Washington, D.C. to view the delicate display, a reminder of hopes for peace between the two nations.

One of the best places to view cherry blossoms in Portland is at the north end of Waterfront Park in the Japanese-American Historical Plaza. Dedicated in August 1990, the plaza’s living glory is the double row of Akebono cherry trees, a white-flowering cultivar that originated in Japan. Administered by the Oregon Nikkei  Endowment, Inc., the plaza tells the story of Portland’s Japanese and Japanese-American community. Plaques recall the forced internment in remote inland camps of people of Japanese ancestry – whether immigrants or U.S.-born citizens – during World War II. The plaza was created with support from Portland Parks & Recreation and many others, including the Metropolitan Arts Commission, Portland Development Commission, and a number of private foundations and businesses.

 Japanese Historical Plaza April 11 2011

This year the Japanese-American Historical Plaza cherry trees are scheduled to peek the week of March 9th.