By Koji Tomita
April 3, 2023
Koji Tomita is the Japanese ambassador to the United States.
In Japan, cherry blossoms have been a favorite subject in haiku. The piece closest to my heart is the one by the 18th-century haiku master Kobayashi Issa:
Under the cherry trees,
None are utter strangers.
I like this poem because it captures the power of the cherry blossom to connect people. In 1912, Japan gifted 3,000 cherry trees to Washington. Those trees are finishing their bloom, and before this season’s blossoms vanish, I want to share a story that, I hope, echoes Issa’s words.
My father, who died two years ago at 95, was a typical Japanese salary man of the bygone days: hard-working, stoic and taciturn. He went to the prewar Imperial Naval Academy in Hiroshima. He graduated just before the conclusion of World War II and saw no action. After the war, he went back to college and then worked for a stock brokerage company.
Being a man of few words, he didn’t talk about his time at the academy, and, to my regret, I never pressed him for stories. But I did know he cherished his friendship with his classmates and often went on reunion trips.
Every spring, I host a small reception for the U.S. Naval Academy graduates taking their first missions in Japan. The aim is to express gratitude for their commitment to our alliance.
A few days before this year’s event, I was shown the pictures of the grove of cherry trees at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. A plaque displayed in the photo said that the grove was a gift from the 75th class of the Japanese Imperial Naval Academy. My father’s class.
This was a surprise. I knew he had visited naval academies in foreign countries during those reunion trips, but I had no idea he had visited Annapolis and had been part of this small gesture of reconciliation.
There was more. At the reception, I shared this discovery with the guests and showed the photo of the plaque to Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the superintendent of the academy. It made clear that the donation had been made to the Annapolis class of 1947.
“That’s my father’s class,” he said as we looked at each other, dumbfounded.
Forging human connection is part of my job. You can’t be a diplomat unless you believe that. Diplomacy is an exercise in human relationships. The connection between our two counties is no exception.
But it’s a hard thing to measure and quantify. It’s not every day that the ephemeral become real. When it does, it’s worthy of celebration.
Remember, there are no strangers under the cherry trees.