Bonsai Survived Hiroshima
WASHINGTON -- In a small, arboreal corner of Washington, D.C., a relic of a horrific day 70 years ago lives in relative obscurity.
A bonsai tree, part of a collection at the National Arboretum, came to the garden's National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in 1976 as a gift of friendship from Japanese bonsai master Masaru Yamaki. But the diminutive tree's past was unknown to museum staff until 2001, when Yamaki's grandsons visited the bonsai and revealed its history: The tree survived the world's first nuclear attack, dropped 70 years ago in Hiroshima, Japan.
The museum didn't broadcast this history, believing the tree's beauty and symbol of friendship between the two countries is more relevant to its meaning, according to Kathleen Emerson-Dell, assistant curator for artifact collections at the museum. But, in the days before Thursday's anniversary of the horrific event, a steady stream of visitors came flowing through the museum to observe the tree. On Tuesday, museum staff added a description below the tree of the bonsai's rich history.
"We really don't play up the idea of its surviving Hiroshima," Emerson-Bell said. "It's just a fact of life." In fact, the tree has survived much more -- it's nearly 400 years old.
William Lee, a rising junior at American University, saw the tree for the first time Wednesday. Upon learning more about its history, he said, the tree, to him, represents peace between Japan and the U.S.
"It's a lot about forgiveness," said Lee, observing the tree in sweltering heat. "About 30 years after the bombing it was donated as a sign of friendship from Japan. That's incredible."
When the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Yamaki and his family were inside their home less than 2 miles away from the explosion. The devastating event killed around 140,000 people, but Yamaki and his family survived largely unhurt, with only some minor injuries from flying glass fragments. Sitting just outside of their house, in a walled nursery, the bonsai tree stood, unharmed.
The bonsai is just one of 53 trees in a collection at the arboretum. Bonsai masters designed each tree to evoke a certain kind of emotion, weight and style, according to Michael James, an agricultural science research technician and assistant to the curator at the museum.
"You look at it and instantly you see something incredibly beautiful," James said. "I think the whole art form of bonsai itself can have many meanings: it's peaceful, it's appreciative of nature, it's meditative. That's why I love this art form."
The arboretum staff maintains each tree's unique styleusing a sculpting and shaping process that is done over and over again. If the trees were ignored, they would grow into the ones often seen in a suburban backyard. But maintenance and care is important to the museum, and James says each tree has its own ever-changing story.
"So many generations have worked on this tree," James said. "That individual artist had such a great vision, and it keeps growing."
For arboretum visitor Cheryl Tyler, Yamaki's tree's story and meaning is profound, almost supernatural.
Observing the tree for the first time on Wednesday, Tyler was in awe.
"These are things you don't ask questions about because you don't know how it happened the way it did," said Tyler, who is president and CEO of CLT3 Security Consulting. "To see something that's created like this and see it in growth and maturity -- it's phenomenal."