In the United States we have customs that have their roots in the many cultural groups that live here. We do not always know the origins of customs that we practice, as they may spread over time and can be reshaped as they become established. Generally customs naturally spread, without any deliberate action. To intentionally take a cultural tradition and establish it in another culture is not easy. The timing needs to be just right or the foreign tradition might be rejected. Even if accepted, it might be a fad or fashion of short duration unless the new tradition appeals to successive generations.
The viewing of cherry blossoms in the United States is a remarkable example of a tradition intentionally brought from Japan, one which has now lasted for over one hundred years. That is young by Japanese reckoning, but enough time to suppose that the new tradition has taken hold.
In Japan, the custom of formally or informally viewing natural events in the cycle of the year is related to the Shinto ideal of connecting with nature. Viewing might consist of a single individual enjoying nature, a family outing, or a party organized for a meal and viewing. Examples are viewing flowers in spring, viewing autumn foliage, and viewing snow in the winter.
The idea of viewing flowering trees in spring was brought to Japan from China in about the eighth century. Immigration from China came in waves, bringing new ideas and inventions, and visitors to China from Japan also brought back ideas from the mainland. In the eighth century there was a particularly intense period of delight in Chinese culture. The Chinese custom of viewing the early spring ume tree blossoms became popular in Japan at this time, as it is one of the earliest flowers to bloom. “Ume” is usually translated as “plum” in English, but the tree is more closely related to the apricot. In addition to enjoying the blossoms, Japanese people made the fruit an important part of their cuisine.
The custom of viewing ume blossoms continues even today, but a far more passionate tradition developed for Japan’s native wild cherries in the later part of the eighth century. A new tradition of going to the mountains to see the cherry blossoms led to the cultivation of the trees for their flowers (not for the fruit) and trees were planted at more convenient places in public parks as well as private gardens.
Traditional viewings of trees in the spring soon became more easily available to all. Private viewing parties in gardens and strolls in public parks in the spring became part of the normal round of seasonal activities in Japan. Enthusiasm for picnics and parties under the blooming trees sometimes resulted in great crowds of celebrants in the past as it still does today. The sakura, the cherry blossom, became a symbol of spring, of renewal, and of the impermanence of life. Over time it also developed into a national symbol for Japan.
Interacting with the natural world has always been especially important in Japan as the values and beliefs of Shinto religion find spirits and the souls of ancestors throughout the natural world. When Buddhism was established in Japan in about the sixth century, early competition changed to acceptance and many Japanese today consider themselves both Buddhist and Shinto. Buddhist and Shinto temples often have cherry trees and host viewings in the spring. Tree branches may be hung with prayers to the spirits, called Kami. When the cherry blossoms bloom they are especially favored for spiritual requests. There is also a custom of writing poems about cherry blossoms. A poem might be hung on the tree as an offering to the spirits (seen in the first woodblock print above).
The many meanings of the cherry blossoms and the ways the meanings changed over time is explored in a 2009 lecture by anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney at the Library of Congress: “Blooming Cherry Blossoms, Falling Cherry Blossoms: Symbolism of the Flower in Japanese Culture and History.” This event was sponsored by the John W. Kluge Center.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, There was a popular and artistic interest in Japanese culture in North America as well as Europe. Japanese art and design influenced the art nouveau movement, impressionist painters, fashion designers, and architects. The idea of planting Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac River began with Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who first proposed it in 1885 after her visit to Japan. Her vision was not just planting trees, but fostering the tradition of viewing the blooming trees in the spring as she had seen done in Japan. She had brought cherry trees from Japan for her own garden.
The popular interest in Japanese culture made this an opportune time for her project and she found many people who were interested. But initially Scidmore had more success convincing her friends and neighbors to import and plant Japanese cherry trees in their gardens than persuading those responsible for the development of the city of Washington to use these trees in their park landscape projects. David Fairchild imported Japanese cherry trees to plant on his own property in 1909 and became an ally in this project. The same year Scidmore decided to raise money to buy trees and donate them to the city. She wrote to First Lady Helen Taft of her intention.
Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Taft had an opportunity to meet the Japanese Consul to New York, K. Midzuno, and Jokichi Takamine (the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline), and told them of the plan. Midzuno and Takamine suggested that Japan might give cherry trees to the United States as a gift. In 1910 the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, sent 2000 trees to the United States to plant in Washington, grafted from trees growing in Tokyo. Unfortunately this gesture of goodwill and friendship went terribly wrong. The Department of Agriculture rejected the trees as they were infested with nematodes and insects too dangerous to introduce into American soil. The trees were then burned by Presidential order. The incident was part of a new concern about invasive pests introduced by imported plants.
Fortunately, the Japanese government was understanding about the mishap, and, in 1912, Mayor Ozaki sent a gift of 3020 young trees of twelve varieties to replace those that were lost. This time the Department of Agriculture agreed they were a fine example of disease-free plants. These were planted in a developing park area along the Potomac that became the Tidal Basin and Potomac Park as we know these areas today. Most of the trees were the somei-yoshino variety with pink buds that open with petals that are very pale pink to white. As the parks along the Potomac developed, some of the original trees needed to be transplanted in other parts of the city. One such tree, in the photograph above, was transplanted on the grounds of the Library of Congress, where it still blooms today. 
The United States is a nation of many cultural groups and many beliefs. Washington is a particularly multicultural city both in its citizens and diplomats and visitors from many nations. So we bring our own customs to the viewing of cherry blossoms and, in some ways, the viewing at the tidal basin is more restrained than the picnics and parties under the blossoms in Japan. But many feel a profound emotional or spiritual response to the mass blooming of Japanese cherry trees. That is one reason that people return again and again to see them in the spring.
In 2012, the one hundredth anniversary of Japan’s first gift of the cherry trees to the United States, the Library of Congress exhibition, Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship, showcased the art, customs, and history of the cherry blossoms in both Japan and the United States. The items of the exhibit were scanned and are available in a virtual version of the exhibit at the link. A video of the gallery tour by the members of the Library’s exhibit team is also available: “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as a Living Symbol of Friendship” (2012, 25 minutes).
Today Washington, D.C., residents and visitors make their way to the Tidal Basin to stroll beneath the trees. The National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates spring and Japanese culture. It also celebrates a tradition between nations, a friendship between Japan and the United States. Events include the ceremonial lighting of a stone lantern in the park that was a gift of the Governor of Tokyo in 1954. The lantern was one of two made in 1651. The twin lantern is in Tosho-gu temple, in Ueno Park, Tokyo. 
Reflecting on the terrible events of World War II, it may seem surprising that the friendship between the United States and Japan endures. The cherry trees were threatened during the war as some Americans called for them to be chopped down — in fact four were chopped down in an act of vandalism. The trees were then referred to as “Oriental” rather than “Japanese” for the war years. But the cherry blossoms were a part of the restoration of friendship between the two nations. In 1952 the National Park Service learned that the same cherry trees along the Arakawa River near Tokyo that had been the parent trees for those in Washington were in poor condition as a result of the war. Cuttings from the trees in Washington were sent to Japan to help to restore the park.  Also, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is a yearly tradition that re-affirms the bond between two nations.
If the Japanese had not been receptive to the introduction of a Chinese custom of viewing flowering trees in the spring, they would not have adapted this custom to viewing cherry blossoms. If Americans had not been so very interested in Japanese culture at the turn of the twentieth century, then Japanese cherry trees would never have been planted in Washington and Americans would not enjoy their own custom of strolling beneath the blooming trees. But the Japanese cherry blossoms and the custom of strolling beneath the trees have become popular in America, with trees now adorning parks in many cities across the United States.
- The National Park Service website provides information on the cherry trees and the festival, including a timeline, “History of the Cherry Trees.” Also, see the video of a lecture at the Library of Congress by Bob Vogel, National Capitol Regional Director for the National Park Service, for a discussion of this history. “History of the National Cherry Blossom Trees,” 2015 (70 minutes).
- See Ann McClellan, Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, 2012, for a history of the festival. McClellan also gave a talk at the Library of Congress, available on video: “The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration,” 2012 (32 minutes).
- ”After Pearl Harbor, Vandals Cut Down Four of DC’s Japanese Cherry Trees,” by Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian.com, April, 2014.