March 26, 2012
Washington, D.C., is always a popular tourist destination, but it’s even more attractive this time of year. Literally. The spring Cherry-Blossom Festival is in full swing, and nature has cooperated. A profusion of pretty, pink blossoms rings the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River.
As many of the visitors who crowd nearby pathways to see nature’s dramatic show soon learn, about 100 of the cherry trees are very old and very hardy. They are survivors from among the 3,000 trees given to the nation by Japan as a gesture of friendship 100 years ago, in 1912.
As more and more of the aging original trees died off in the mid-1960s, Japan renewed its gift with 3,800 new ones. Resting among all the trees - old and new - there’s an ancient, pagoda-shaped stone lantern, sent from Japan in 1954, that’s lit each year at this time.
What many of the blossom-watchers don’t know is that there’s also a more recent Japanese connection in the city - erected a short walk away in 2000 in a little park across the street from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
Designed as a place for meditation and learning, the privately funded National Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism tells two stories.
One is the proud account of the exploits of Japanese Americans who fought for the United States in World War Two.
The other tells a shameful story.
Ten names appear on a wall. These were the locations of internment camps - which the most strident of critics call the American equivalent of concentration camps.
Some 120,000 Japanese-Americans - American citizens all - were confined in them during the same war.
The memorial foundation’s executive director, Cherry Tsutsumida, a longtime Federal health worker, was among the little children hustled with their families into such an internment camp in the Arizona desert.
“Even though my father was just a farmer, they assumed that he had all the characteristics of ‘those sneaky Japs’ in Japan,” she said. "And as a result, those of us who were his children carried the cape of being ‘disloyal Americans,’ whatever that meant. Some of our Chinese friends also began to wear little tags that said, ‘We are not a Jap,’ which again reinforced our isolation and our feeling of being guilty of something that we did not understand.”
In an unprecedented gesture, the U.S. Congress voted in 1988 to issue an apology and pay $20,000 dollars in reparations to each relocation camp internee still alive. Supporters of the Japanese-American Memorial say that it serves as a reminder to a free nation to never again permit the denial of individual rights of law-abiding citizens.