The man who saved Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms from extinction
Excerpt: The Sakura Obsession
Collingwood Ingram arrived in Nagasaki on 30 March 1926, in what would be the final year of Emperor Taishō’s reign. He left about seven weeks later, “veiled,” as he wrote, “in tears.” He was never to return to Japan. His visit was essentially a pilgrimage—a sakura angya—that he believed would broaden and deepen his knowledge of cherry culture to a greater degree than all but a few other people in the world. Angya is a Zen Buddhist term that refers to the walking pilgrimage that monks and nuns make as they prepare to become spiritual masters and guides.
This was a bittersweet visit. Not only did Ingram collect new cherry varieties for his garden, but he also visited the most famous cherry locations, met the nation’s top cherry experts and was treated like royalty. And yet, two decades of yearning for a country that, in early adulthood, had taken his breath away evaporated within days.
Ingram’s first impressions were alarming. On 1 April, when his ship steamed through the Inland Sea towards Tokyo, the mountaintops on the island of Shikoku, south of Honshu, were still smothered in snow. Few cherry trees were in full bloom, having been held back by the unusually long winter. That couldn’t be helped, of course, but Ingram’s second impressions were even more disheartening. On Friday, 2 April he travelled from Tokyo to Yokohama, 25 miles south of the capital, to meet the heads of the Yokohama Nursery, one of the main cherry-tree exporters. En route, he witnessed what he described as ‘a litter of untidiness’ that confirmed the disdain he had felt on his previous visits for urban Japan and industrialization. He wrote in his diary:
“The old Oriental towns have been wiped out, and upon their sites are being reared ultra-Occidental buildings of great size and hideousness. It seems to me that Japan is trying to swallow too suddenly and at a gulp, a much too big dose of Western civilization, and that she is suffering in consequence from a sort of violent aesthetic indigestion.”
In part, the events of 1 September 1923 were to blame. Two minutes before noon on that day the ground beneath Tokyo and Yokohama shook violently for 10 minutes, triggering massive fires in and around the conurbation. This was the Great Kantō Earthquake, one of Japan’s worst natural disasters. It caused a tsunami with 30-foot-high waves to roll in over the coastal villages. A typhoon barreled through the capital the same day, its powerful winds fanning the flames. This combination of the 7.9-magnitude quake and its merciless consequences left more than 142,000 people dead, three million injured and 1.9 million homeless. To rebuild the metropolis, where more than 500,000 homes had been destroyed, the government pulled down thousands of wooden houses and replaced many with concrete buildings.
The result wasn’t pretty. Even before the earthquake, the densely populated region had suffered from Japan’s unrelenting push for economic growth and international recognition. The downside to the smoke-belching factories that had turned Japan into the world’s ninth-largest economy was that they had also turned many cities grimy-grey.
Much like the pea-souper that had affected London at the time of Ingram’s conception, the cities’ smog was so bad that some children believed the natural color of tree leaves to be grey rather than green. Moreover, the cities had become increasingly crowded, as jobs in the countryside diminished and urban employment soared. This had increased demand for company dormitories and hastily built apartments, at the expense of green spaces. After the disaster, business slumped, tens of thousands of workers were laid off, laborr unions proliferated and the economy became chronically depressed.
The Yokohama Nursery lay in the heart of the area most affected. There, at the company’s headquarters, Ingram found himself sitting on a sofa and drinking green tea as an interpreter translated the words of Kiyoshi Suzuki and Masunosuke Shimamura, respectively the nursery’s president and general manager.
It was a dispiriting conversation. “It appears,” Ingram wrote later, “that the commercialization of Japan has caused the cult of these beautiful trees to wane.” Suzuki and Shimamura told him that although the Japanese people were still devoted to cherry blossoms, they no longer showed any interest in the varieties. When ordering a tree, they said, people merely asked for a “single”- or “double”- blossomed flower, and they seldom received any orders for a specific named variety.
Ingram was startled. For the first time he realized how much damage the dramatic shift from a feudal to a modern society was inflicting on the cultivated cherries. During the Sakoku era, the daimyō lords’ gardeners had poured their time and energy into creating more beautiful and attractive varieties. After the Meiji Restoration, as the daimyō lost their social status and were pensioned off, many of their luxurious mansions and cherry-filled gardens in Tokyo were abandoned or fell into disrepair. Other gardens were turned into tea and mulberry plantations. Many cultivated cherries that the daimyō had tended for decades were cut down or died of neglect. And because each variety was unique to a specific daimyō‘s garden, countless varieties became extinct.
To be sure, wild cherries continued to thrive in the mountains. However, in the unprecedented rush to revamp the economy, the Japanese had forgotten about the diverse range of cherries that had been developed during the Edo period. The one exception was the newly cultivated Somei-yoshino cherry, with its soft-pink blooms. Japan’s new leaders were eager to find symbols of national unity and modernity with which the population could identify. The cloned cherry, developed in the 1860s, during the final years of the Edo period, fitted the bill perfectly.
Year by year, cherry trees in Japan were becoming less diverse. One of Ingram’s priorities was to find new varieties there that were unknown to expert botanists. Yet only five days into his trip, the realization of the cherries’ impoverished condition hit him hard and raised lots of questions: Why had the tradition of creating cherries collapsed so completely after the Meiji era began in 1868? Was it possible to stir up demand for varieties again? If so, what would it take to revive interest in them?
Faced with these questions at the Yokohama Nursery, Suzuki and Shimamura had few answers, and the lengthy conversation left Ingram feeling disheartened, as his diary entry reveals:
“We owe the extraordinary richness of varieties to bygone days, and especially to the Tokugawa period. Horticulture was then at its zenith and the cherries subject to critical selection. Now that no interest is taken to save the less-showy or (what is more serious) the less-easily propagated varieties from extinction, their numbers are sure to decrease.”
But later that night Ingram reassessed the situation more positively:
“Happily, they [cherry trees] are not very short-lived plants and it may not yet be too late to save some from oblivion. [However,] in years to come, the Japanese will have to seek some of their best sorts [of cherries] in Europe and America.”
As Ingram noted in his diary, he had at least four cherry varieties growing at The Grange that appeared neither in the Yokohama Nursery sales catalogue, which listed seventy-two varieties, nor in Professor Miyoshi’s classification guide of 133 species and varieties. Already he was thinking about how to save Japan’s rarest flowers.
Excerpted from THE SAKURA OBSESSION by Naoko Abe. Copyright © 2019 by Naoko Abe. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.