How Japan Almost Lost a National Symbol to Extinction

On the Cherry Blossom Tree and the English Gardener Who Saved It

By  Naoko Abe

Every major step of my life started with cherry blossoms, as it does for most Japanese people. Japan is a nation where, contrary to Western habit, many significant beginnings occur in April, when the school and government years start and companies welcome their new recruits. When I was beginning nursery school in the central-Honshu city of Nagoya in April 1962, a friend took a black-and-white photograph of me with my mother, Akiko, underneath the gossamer-thin pink petals of a single cherry tree near the school gates. Everyone did the same thingeveryone. Not to have taken a photograph would have been almost sacrilegious. In the picture I’m clinging onto my mama’s arm, anxious about the day ahead, but comforted by the umbrella of flowers overhead.

My father, Hiroyoshi, wasn’t in the photo. As a journalist, he was working, always working, writing stories about the corporate businessmen driving Japan’s re-emergence as a postwar industrial power.

In 1964 the newspaper for which my father worked transferred him to Tokyo and we left our wooden, tatami-floored home in Nagoya aboard one of the first bullet trains to the nation’s capital. Tokyo was about to host its first Olympic Games—the nation’s proudest moment in decades. It was proof that Japan was back on its feet after the humiliating devastation of defeat and nuclear destruction. At the Takamatsu primary school where I enrolled that spring, Mama and I once again stood under the cherry blossoms at the school entrance for the obligatory photograph.

Junior high school. High school. University. For us, it’s always the same: April represents a fresh start, another step in life. The cherry blossoms. The photos. And here I am again, in April 1981, captured under fully-opened blossoms by the family Canon camera on the day that I became a professional journalist.

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Japan’s attachment to cherry blossoms represents a unique and singular obsession. We’re a homogeneous people—98 percent of the 127 million population are ethnically Japanese—linked by more than 2,000 years of tradition and a cultural affinity to one plant. Other nations have special flowers, of course. But who could imagine virtually the entire population of Britain or Germany or America visiting parks on one particular weekend to view a flower, no matter how lovely?

At the newspaper where I worked in Tokyo, covering the prime minister’s office and later the Ministry of Defense, we would send a young assistant to a nearby park next to the Imperial Palace, laden with plastic sheets and cardboard. There, he would spread these mats under a cherry tree and sit shoeless all afternoon—woe betide anyone wearing shoes on our plastic carpet—to defend our space, in readiness for the evening’s hanami, or cherry-viewing, party (in Japanese, hana means flower and mi means seeing). Hanami was an annual rite of spring, a communal orgy of cherry-blossom-flavored rice, pickles, wine, sake and sweets, loud singing, corporate bonding and reunions of friends and family.

All my life I had taken the blossoms for granted. What I never considered was why most of the planted trees growing in Japan—seven out of every ten specimens—were of the same variety, known as Somei-yoshino. When I moved to London in 2001, I was puzzled by the varied cherry-blossom landscape throughout the British Isles. The blooms I encountered here were multicolored—white, pink, reddish, some even greenish—and the trees blossomed at different times, usually from mid-March until mid-May. Some of these trees burst into flower, dropped their petals and then another variety would take over, producing a kaleidoscopic cascade effect of blossom that stretched the cherry season to two months.

There he was, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the wealthy grandson of the founder of the Illustrated London News.

In Japan, the season is much more defined. The flowers of each Somei-yoshino tree survive for about eight days, no more, and the reason they all blossom together and then lose those blossoms together is that they are clones. And so the sakura, or cherry-blossom, culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries revolved around the flower’s short life and swift, predictable death. The cherry blossom was ephemeral, like life itself.

What on earth had happened, I found myself wondering, to the wild cherries, such as Yama-zakura, that grew en masse in the mountains or were planted in the cities during the samurai era in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? What happened to varieties cultivated in abundance for hundreds of years by the daimyō, the feudal lords who ruled principalities all over Japan, and by cherry aficionados in the ancient city of Kyoto? What, indeed, had happened to the once-prized diversity of the cherry trees, with their wonderfully varied and different flower forms?

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Researching a newspaper column about how cherry trees spread in the British Isles, I came across the story of Collingwood Ingram, whose crusade to preserve Taihaku and scores of other Japanese cherry-tree varieties is legendary among Western horticulturalists. To the Japanese and the wider world, it is unknown. As I investigated further, Ingram’s name kept popping up, and soon I found myself caught up in a full-scale journey of discovery about the cherry tree, which took me to archives, botanical gardens, horticultural research institutes and temples throughout Japan and the United Kingdom. Along the way the quest became deeply personal, upending views that I had held since birth about a tree I thought I knew intimately.

In the course of my research I read about a visit that the Kent Gardens Association had made in May 2010 to The Grange, a 25-room house in the village of Benenden, which, in 1919, had been bought by Ingram and his wife, Florence. The guest speaker on that visit was Charlotte Molesworth, a topiary specialist, who lived in a cottage next to The Grange with her gardener husband, Donald. Charlotte and Donald knew the Ingram family well, and she suggested that I should contact Ernest Pollard, Ingram’s gentlemanly grandson-in-law. In turn, Pollard invited me to his home near the East Sussex town of Rye. His wife, Veryan, is Ingram’s granddaughter.

There, on a round wooden table in a tidy ground-floor office, the Pollards had laid out piles of diaries, sketches, handwritten memos, research papers, books, journals, photographs and newspaper articles. To my joy, I had stumbled across a treasure trove, spanning Collingwood Ingram’s 100-year life, from 1880 to 1981. Apart from Ernie, as he insisted I call him, no one had looked at most of this valuable collection. Much of it had sat for years in cardboard boxes, before he started sorting out the material.

Ernie kindly lent me copies of transcribed diaries that Ingram had written during his visits to Japan in 1902, 1907 and 1926. Back home in London, I checked the names of the people Ingram had met on his trips to Japan. They proved a revelation: they included royalty, business leaders and top politicians. They were the cream of Japanese society, key members of a newly emergent industrial power, and all were somehow connected to cherry trees. And there was more. Ingram’s notes and diaries contained exquisite descriptions of Japan’s natural scenery, and of horticulturalists for whom the trees and their blossoms were far more than a splendid plant—they were treasured institutions.

So I jumped joyfully down the rabbit hole of research. I conducted interviews with Ingram’s descendants, his gardener, his housekeeper and others who had known him well. My one-dimensional impressions of Ingram evolved into something far more colorful. There he was, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the wealthy grandson of the founder of the Illustrated London News. There was Ingram as a sick boy, too weak to attend school, and then as a supremely assured teenager. There was Ingram as a young adventurer in Australia and Japan, when the British Empire was at its peak.

Rather than focusing on cherry blossom as a symbol of life, the songs, plays and school textbooks now focused more on death.

In the world of nature, there was Ingram as an ornithologist, drawing birds in French woods in 1917 and 1918 during the First World War; Ingram as an ecologist, decades ahead of his time, preaching the importance of species diversity to a country, Japan, where conformity tends to prevail; Ingram as an agnostic, arguing religion with his parish priest and extolling Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories.

There was also Ingram as a Second World War patriot, heading Benenden’s Home Guard, a unit of older and non-conscripted men preparing for the German invasion of England. Not least, there was Ingram the husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend, sharing with the world his expertise about the natural environment and, above all, about flowering cherry trees.

Collingwood Ingram was a cherry-tree colossus. A passionate advocate for the blossoms and a leading authority on them, he saved some varieties from extinction. He built the world’s biggest collection of cherry-tree varieties outside Japan in his Kent garden. His broader legacy was to spread a diverse cherry-tree culture almost single-handedly across the British Isles and the world at large.

Ingram introduced about fifty different kinds of Japanese cherries to Britain. He was the first person in the world to hybridize cherries artificially. He created his own new varieties. And he named a few existing varieties, whose lineage was unknown. To one cherry he gave the name Hokusai, in homage to the world-renowned Japanese painter and printmaker, Katsushika Hokusai, with whom he shared a great love of Japan’s iconic mountain, Mount Fuji. He named another variety Asano, after the fallen samurai hero of one of Japan’s classic literary texts, Forty-Seven Rōnin.

He also wrote a seminal book on cherries and gave away seeds, cuttings and saplings, always for free. Moreover he promoted cherries at every opportunity, with his privileged friends and the public alike. And his favorite flowering cherry? Taihaku. “For quality and size, it stands supreme,” Ingram wrote. He became instrumental in the preservation of Taihaku, but how did he get caught up in this mission?

My own research also led me to ponder the historic role of cherry blossoms in Japan over the centuries. Living in England, I had seen a thousand “Visit Japan” advertisements, often highlighting the same two icons: a snow-capped Mount Fuji and the cherry blossom. Yet I soon found that this harmonious imagery masked far more complex questions about the sakura as a national symbol.

In ancient Japan, cherry blossoms had been emblematic of new life and new beginnings. That perception began to change subtly in the second half of the nineteenth century. And it accelerated dramatically in the 1930s, as successive governments used the popularity of sakura, and its imperial links, as propaganda tools among an unquestioning people. Rather than focusing on cherry blossom as a symbol of life, the songs, plays and school textbooks now focused more on death. Classic poems were deliberately misinterpreted, and it became the norm to believe that the Yamato damashii, or “true Japanese spirit,” involved a willingness to die for the emperor—Japan’s living god—much as the cherry petals died after a short but glorious life.

In this political environment, from the late nineteenth century onwards, the newly cultivated Somei-yoshino cherries were a convenience. Where once Japanese urban areas had been covered with wild cherries and many different varieties, Somei-yoshino clones now predominated and their rapid adoption altered the traditional cherry-blossom landscape. They grew fast—from sapling to maturity in about five years. They were easy to propagate. They were cheap. Most of all, they were beautiful.

When Somei-yoshino trees are in full bloom, their delicacy and elegance cloak the nation in a pink mantle. Because they flower before their spring leaves come out, their appearance is in some ways more dramatic than that of many other cherries, which usually flower and produce their first leaves in tandem. Whenever Japan had something to celebrate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a single variety alone was planted.

By the late 1880s more than 30 percent of all cherry trees in Tokyo were Somei-yoshino. Millions more were planted nationwide after Japan’s military victory against Russia in 1905, and to celebrate Emperor Taishō’s accession to the throne in 1912 and Emperor Shōwa’s (Hirohito) in 1926. Other cherries were neglected or simply disappeared. Few people cared, and fewer still did anything about it.

My father, who was born in 1931, remembered memorizing and repeatedly singing songs about cherry blossoms at his primary school in Okayama Prefecture, as militarism took hold after Japan’s invasion of the Chinese province of Manchuria. He also recalled another historical juncture, when the singing of such songs stopped abruptly, after Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945 and the American occupation began. This was a time when photographs of the emperor vanished from school classrooms. My father recalls how he and his classmates were each given a brush and a pot of black ink with which to erase any mention in their textbooks of the emperor’s divinity and the so-called “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which the Japanese military had previously promoted. Emperor Hirohito declared himself a mere mortal on New Year’s Day 1946.

To Ingram, the way that Japan had lurched into a culture of extreme uniformity was alien, restrictive and potentially dangerous.

In just a few months after the Second World War ended, the nation’s outlook would revolve 180 degrees. Black became white. Enemies became friends. And the single-minded “cherry ideology” that Japan had pursued for more than half a century would be abandoned in favor of post-war realities.

As I was researching, I found myself considering a speech that Collingwood Ingram had given to some of Japan’s most eminent cherry experts and supporters in 1926, in which he warned that many of the flowering tree varieties were in danger of extinction. This was a stark warning about Japan’s imminent plunge down a destructive path. But when his pleas fell on deaf ears, this determined Englishman would take it upon himself to save the blossoms.

The more I researched and interviewed, the more stories came to light. I came across several Japanese cherry specialists who risked their lives during the Pacific War (as the Second World War is known) to preserve rare varieties. Then there were the grim experiences of Ingram’s daughter-in-law in a Hong Kong prisoner-of-war camp. And years after Ingram’s death, “reconciliation” cherry trees arrived in England, the gift of a Japanese cherry-grower who had grown up near a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Japan.

All this work led to my book, ‘Cherry’ Ingram: The English Saviour of Japan’s Cherry Blossoms, which was published in Japanese in 2016. I was deeply honored when it won the Japan Essayist Club Award, a major non-fiction prize in my homeland. Then one day, after giving a speech about the book at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, I was asked by some non-Japanese friends whether the book would appear in English and other languages.

Thus began a new life for the Ingram story. For the international edition of the book, more historical and cultural perspective was needed. After all, Japanese people are familiar with concepts such as hanami or cherry-blossom viewing, but such Japan-specific experiences needed explaining to Nippon neophytes. I also delved into more documents and conducted more interviews throughout Britain and Japan. At Alnwick Castle, the Duchess of Northumberland showed me the garden where she has planted the world’s largest collection of Taihaku cherries. In the snowy mountains of Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, an impassioned gardener explained how he and his colleagues were keeping alive a 1,500-year-old tree, the world’s second-oldest cherry. And in the far south of Kyushu, itself an island in the west of the Japanese archipelago, the grandson of an innkeeper who had befriended scores of kamikaze pilots brought tears to my eyes while describing their final hours. Many of these young men—boys, some of them—had died the day after writing farewell poems to their loved ones that compared their lives to the cherry blossoms.

My goal remained the same: to tell an illuminating tale about the surprising connections that linked one man, one flower and two countries. It was the largely unknown story of Collingwood Ingram, his long life and uncomplicated philosophy. The story of the cherry blossom, its short life and complex ideology. The story of Britain and Japan, two island nations where decades of peace and friendship were punctuated by a four-year war whose consequences still linger today.

In Japan, Ingram’s views about heterogeneity clashed with the nation’s homogeneity. Ingram assumed that diversity of views and beliefs, species and varieties was a given, to be encouraged and lauded. A society that embraces difference clashes occasionally, but is robust, energetic and forward-looking. For him, this meant that the more different types of birds and plants—including cherry blossoms—there were, the better.

To Ingram, the way that Japan had lurched into a culture of extreme uniformity was alien, restrictive and potentially dangerous. The disappearance of diversity, highlighted by the extinction of the Taihaku cherry, was indicative of Japan’s militaristic mood in the 1920s and 1930s. The ubiquity of the lookalike Somei-yoshino cherry spoke volumes about the dark path of conformity which the Japanese followed, until their 1945 defeat.

But all this is still to come. The story begins with the young Collingwood Ingram at home in the English countryside, surrounded by his family’s madcap menagerie of Japanese Chin dogs and albino sparrows.

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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.

Naoko Abe
Naoko Abe
Naoko Abe is a Japanese journalist based in London. She was the first female political writer to cover the prime minister’s office, the foreign ministry, and the defense ministry at one of Japan’s largest newspapers.





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