Sunday, March 27, 2011

The National Cherry Blossom Festival: From "prestige gift" to expression of solidarity

We don’t discuss Japan for another few weeks, but with the opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival yesterday, I didn’t want to wait.

The festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 trees from the Mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington as a symbol of friendship. The event draws over a million of visitors each year and will celebrate its centennial next year. What began as a “prestige gift” (as Nick Cull would put it) has over the years turned into much more, spanning other forms of cultural diplomacy: “cultural information” and “dialogue and collaboration” (though I’m not sure about “capacity building”).

The festival’s partners include the Washington and Convention Sports Authority, Downtown Improvement District, the National Park Service, and the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C. The latter is a nonprofit established in 1957 by U.S. diplomats and friends at the Japanese Embassy, with the goal of personalizing relations and creating a people-to-people organization.
During his visit that same year, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi said, “You will agree with me that government-to-government relations are only one side of the picture. Equally, if not more important in tying our countries closely together, are the relations at private levels in the economic, cultural, and other fields.”

The role of government isn’t clear, though I’m sure there’s some government funding and the National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior. But the event is carried out by citizens and private organizations, so this is really an example of government as facilitator/coordinator of public diplomacy.

This year, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival has become an opportunity to express solidarity. Last Thursday, the Festival held “Stand with Japan,” an event held in “the spirit of hope and rebuilding.” The Festival’s website reports: “Our relationship with Japan is at the heart of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and the Festival is uniquely positioned as a natural conduit to unite the millions of people who want to assist and express their support in a show of unity, and the evening of hope and perseverance occurs before the 16-day celebration begins on Saturday, March 26.”

In “Cherry Blossom Festival keeps Japan on mind,” Robert Samuels reports that origami crane folding, a regular activity at the festival, has turned into a charity event where children may donate their paper cranes to the Bezos Family Foundation in Seattle, which has pledged $2 toward rebuilding efforts for every crane it receives, up to $200,000. And the popular street festival, taking place April 9th, will donate a portion of the $5 entrance fee. In addition, several local restaurants and bars are donating proceeds from the sale of items such as Japanese beer or cherry-blossom-themed treats.


  1. Another article on some of the changes taking place in light of the earthquake:

  2. I have so many great memories of going down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms as a kid (and more recently of course!), so I was very interested to read your post on how the tone of the festival may be different this year after the disaster in Japan. While reading your post and its mentions of the different partners and sponsors of the festival, I kept thinking of the Deos and Pigman reading from last week. I think their thesis--that public-private partnerships should be in place for successful public diplomacy--applies really well here. The cherry blossoms wouldn't be so well known as a DC institution--and public diplomacy for Japan--without the restaurants, stores and media that sponsor them. I think their sponsorship/partnership is especially important this year because of the recent events in Japan. This year and in the future, it will help people focus on the many things that are good and beautiful about Japan instead of the devastation of March 11th. Great post and I hope I can make it downtown again this year!