February 11, 2020 'Cherry Blossoms' Book Explores Rich History of Springtime Celebration

New Book Features Art and Photographs from Library’s Collections

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“Cherry Blossoms: Sakura Collections from the Library of Congress,” published Feb. 11 by Smithsonian Books, in association with the Library of Congress.

Vibrant springtime traditions of cherry blossom viewing in Japan and Washington, D.C., are explored in the new book “Cherry Blossoms: Sakura Collections from the Library of Congress,” published today by Smithsonian Books, in association with the Library of Congress.

Visual art, including prints, drawings and photographs from the Library’s collections, provide a fresh look at the tradition of cherry blossom celebrations that originated more than 1,200 years ago. Japan shared the tradition with the United States when they presented the nation’s capital with 3,020 cherry trees in 1912. Ever since, D.C. residents and visitors have been mesmerized by the trees and have joined in the festivities of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws more than 1.5 million visitors each year.

Authors Mari Nakahara and Katherine Blood, both curators in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, present a comprehensive view of the history of this annual celebration, illustrated by prints, posters, photographs and artifacts from the Library’s rich collections.

“Cherry Blossoms” reflects on the long tradition of flower viewing in Japanese culture with vivid color woodblock prints by ukiyo-e master artists, photographs, color lithographic posters and Kōkichi Tsunoi’s exquisite watercolor drawings from 1921. The book highlights the rich connections between Japan’s centuries-old traditions and contemporary counterparts. The American public’s affection for the blossoms is revealed in vintage and contemporary photographs of the Tidal Basin, collections related to the National Cherry Blossom Festival and the Cherry Blossom Princess Program, as well as decades’ worth of creatively designed festival posters.

In 2012, the Library celebrated the 100th anniversary of the gift of cherry blossoms with the exhibition “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship,” which provided the basis for the new book.

“To say that cherry blossoms are beloved by Washingtonians would be a vast understatement,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden wrote in the book’s foreword. “Ongoing research and new additions to the Library’s rich and growing Washington Sakuramatsuri korekushon (National Cherry Blossom Festival collection) have now made it possible to substantially expand and deepen the scope of the original exhibition into a new, richly illustrated publication.”

Fascinating Facts about Cherry Blossom Traditions:

  • It started over 1,200 years ago…with plum blossoms! The Japanese custom of flower viewing, or hanami, is thousands of years old. Beginning in the 9th century, saplings and trees were brought down from the mountains to grace the gardens of the aristocracy. The practice was first associated with plum (ume) blossoms before it became linked almost exclusively with cherry blossoms during the Heian period (794-1185).
  • A feudal warlord threw some of the most lavish parties. Before it became popular with people at all levels of society, cherry blossom viewing in Japan was reserved for the elite. Legendary feudal warlord and samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) sponsored some of history’s most lavish cherry blossom-viewing events. His 1594 celebration at Mount Yoshino included a poetry party, a nō play, and a hanami party with 5,000 guests. In 1598, he built hillside teahouses to accommodate guests for his party at Kyoto’s Daigoji temple and transplanted 700 cherry trees to the site.
  • Blossoms Symbolize Fleeting Delights in Life. Cherry blossoms are heralds of spring, but their short blooming period also evokes the ephemeral beauty of life. Edo period (1603-1868) hanami celebrations featured the pleasure of food and drink, poetry and music – tinged with wistful appreciation of the fleeting beauty of both blossoms and earthly delights. This tradition continues. The transitory beauty of life becomes vivid when gusty spring winds end the blooming season with showers of drifting petals, an effect the Japanese call hanafubuki (cherry blossom blizzard).
  • A “Field of Cherries” in Potomac Park? It took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers three decades to transform the low-lying area known as Potomac Flats into Potomac Park. A 1914 sightseer map of Washington features the new park and labels the road around the west end of the Tidal Basin as the “Speedway.” U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist David Fairchild and cherry tree advocate Eliza Scidmore promoted the site as an ideal place for a “field of cherries.”
  • Not all cherry blossoms are pink. Cherry blossoms varieties include multiple colors: white, pink, yellow – even green. Twelve different varieties of cherry blossom trees were sent from the city of Tokyo to Washington D.C. in 1912. While most were the white-pink Somei Yoshino, there were also 10 different varieties of double-flowered (or manifold) trees, one variety with green blossoms, called Gyoikō, and some varieties with fragrance. The trees around today’s Tidal Basin are limited primarily to Somei Yoshino and Kwan-Zan.

The new 96-page book features more than 90 color and black and white images from the Library’s collection. It is available in hardcover ($18.95) from the Library of Congress Shop, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C., https://library-of-congress-shop.myshopify.com/ and from book retailers worldwide.

The authors will discuss the book on Thursday, April 9. “Fleeting Beauty, Enduring Traditions: Blossom Viewing Over the Centuries” is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Library and will feature a display of cherry blossom-related artworks. The Library will also host Japanese Culture Day on Saturday, April 11, with activities for children, families and teachers from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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PR 20-009
ISSN 0731-3527