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An Englishman Saves the Cherry Varieties in Japan

September 26, 2019

Recently, the author was flipping through The Times in London and came across an advertisement promoting a trip to Japan to view the cherry blossoms some eight months hence. In another life, the author was in a very high-end Geisha house near Yokohama, Japan as the guest of a wealthy Japanese industrialist during cherry blossom season. In three years of living in Japan, this event was the only invitation received to such an establishment which would have cost his guests several month's salary. Moreover, a "Gaijin" (foreigner) would not be welcome unless hosted by a Japanese of massive pedigree. By the way, the Japanese are somewhat xenophobic and prefer to stick to their own kind. One must be prepared for a long day for such an event as our limo drive from the Tokyo office to the establishment was approximately one hour and the official "dinner" lasted over six hours. Fortunately, it was near home though that later became an issue.
Many people have the wrong impression of Geisha entertainers as they are schooled in traditional singing and dancing wearing elaborate kimonos. Moreover, they are quite proficient in drinking games as their primary objective is to get their guests drunk while supported by a deep bench of Geisha substitutes. In the compression chamber of Japan, it is one of the few times leaders of business and government can truly relax. The Geisha were highly successful that evening and the next location being promoted to visit was Yamate-cho in Yokohama to take a keg of sake to sing songs with the Geisha and view the cherry blossoms under the moonlight. It seemed like a tremendous idea until the realization settled in that the noisy party would occur just below my bedroom window.
Now you should know the significance of cherry blossom season to both the Japanese and foreign tourists. We were made aware that it had arrived every year in Yokohama when drunk Japanese men and totally sober Geisha would sing songs under our bedroom window. In fact, in the Geisha house, I sang cherry blossom songs while holding the song sheet in written Japanese which was ridiculous. Having heard the songs being sung outside the house, I could sing them but could no more read Japanese than the man in the moon. However, copious quantities of Japanese sake can create miracles.
However, for other folks in Japan, every year in the latter part of March a Japanese phenologist (they study plant life cycles) watches for the appearance of pink and white blossoms on cherry trees in the Yasukuni shrine to officially announce the start of the cherry blossom season. By the way, the Japanese are pretty rigid people which is why the trains run on time. The Yasukuni shrine is very controversial as it honors the war dead for those who served the Emperor of Japan from 1867 to 1951. In fact, the purpose of the shrine is to respect the souls of these people which includes a number of convicted war criminals in World War II. Many of those countries who suffered from the war consider the shrine and the level of respect paid to war criminals to be a massive affront. 
The name of this particular cherry blossom is someiyoshino, the pink petals of which are said to represent the souls of dead fighters. Last cherry blossom season, The Economist published an article entitled Flower Power which reviewed a book by Naoko Abe entitled "Cherry Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan's Blossoms." Collingwood "Cherry" Ingram, 1880-1981, was a British ornithologist, plant collector, gardener and authority on Japanese flowering cherries. Moreover, Ingram, shown below in his garden, took on the personal cause of saving other cherry varieties in light of the favoritism afforded the someiyoshino cherry. His task was quite controversial in Japan as Ingram's efforts to save Japan's broader cherry legacy came at a time when Japan was succumbing to belligerent nationalism. Accordingly, there was great resentment to a foreigner or "Gaijin" interfering by reinstating white cherry blossom trees.
Twenty years following his efforts of grafting other varieties in England and returning them to Japan, the "Sakura Obsession" of the pink cherry blossom was the symbol painted on kamikaze suicide planes. They were prominently displayed on the fuselages to remind the pilots that after death they would be reborn as cherry blossoms at the Yasukuni shrine.
Toward the end of the war, most Japanese kamikaze pilots had become cherry blossoms and North Korean captive teenagers were inducted for training. The training was done on a wooden board with a stick to show how to take off as landing was not the objective. John Myung, who the author knew quite well, went through such training but was fortunate that the war ended before he had his farewell glass of sake prior to jumping in an aircraft for the first and last time. It was very egalitarian of the Japanese to accommodate the Korean kids in their Yasukuni cherry trees. The image below is a model of a kamikaze plane illustrating the "rising sun" symbol of Japan and the pink cherry blossom which is on display in the Yasukuni shrine.
Cherry blossom tour promoters in London would probably prefer that the history of the pink cherry blossom or "Sakura" not be widely disseminated in light of the great losses of British troops in the Far East to the Japanese. On the other hand, they can take pride that "Cherry" Ingram took great efforts to broaden the cherry population of Japan with white varietals at a time that was very controversial in its own right.

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