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Beautiful Sakura Homecoming to Mark Emperor Showa's Taiwan Visit Centenary

A bilateral group promoting Japan-Taiwan ties is marking the centenary of Emperor Showa's historic visit to Taiwan by "repatriating" sakura trees back to Japan.

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This Banyan tree at National Cheng Kung University was planted by Crown Prince Hirohito. It has grown strong and is now a tourist spot. (Courtesy of Sakura Satogaeri no kai)

Most readers would probably agree that this year's sakura blossoms were particularly beautiful. This feeling may have been because the weather was so good. Or it may be because the COVID-related restrictions were eased and people could assemble, without masks, more easily. I enjoyed the cherry blossoms for yet another reason — the restart of a movement to repatriate cherry trees in Taiwan that had their origins in Japan.

Let me explain. 

A century ago on April 16, 1923, Crown Prince Hirohito (later Emperor Showa) began his 12-day visit to Taiwan, which was then under Japanese administration. He helped plant a sakura tree in Kusayama (now Yangmingshan National Park) outside of Taipei to commemorate the trip.

Parts of the original sakura tree were propagated and reproduced in Taiwan. A group from Taiwan involved in promoting Taiwan-Japan relations then suggested using the saplings in a goodwill project. It is therefore these offspring of the original sakura that have now returned to Japan.

Crown Prince Hirohito in Tainan, Taiwan, in 1923 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

A Sakura Homecoming

The group, known as the "Sakura Satogaeri no Kai" was formed in the summer of 2019. It wanted to do something on behalf of Japan to help celebrate the start of the Reiwa era. The new Imperial Era began on May 1, 2019, and means "Beautiful Harmony."

In October 2019, on the eve of the enthronement ceremony for Emperor Naruhito (the grandson of the Showa Emperor), the group traveled to Tokyo to meet with Japanese supporters of the project. During the meeting, they conducted a presentation ceremony at which their intentions were made official. A press conference was also held and was covered by The Sankei Shimbun.

A follow-up gathering was held in February 2020 in Taipei, where Japanese representatives were in attendance. There, details of the saplings to be sent to Japan were discussed. The saplings arrived in Japan at the end of 2020.

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In the meantime, to prepare for the arrival of the saplings and to officially interact with the Taiwanese association, the Japanese side formed the Japanese chapter of the association. Foreign affairs commentator and prolific author Hideaki Kase served as the chairman for the first two years. He passed away in the fall of 2022. 

The new chairman is former Minister of the Environment and international lawyer, Yoshiaki Harada. Former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's mother, Yōko, serves as the honorary chairperson of the Japanese chapter. Tseng Wen-hui, the spouse of the late Lee Teng-hui, former president of Taiwan, is the honorary chairperson of the Taiwanese chapter.

The Imperial Family and Taiwan

In late 2020, the saplings arrived and were quarantined and inspected. Then, they were turned over to the Japanese side. On April 29, 2021, the first five saplings were planted in Kitanomaru Park, across from the Imperial Palace's Inui-mon Gate. 

The five trees now range from 150cm to 200 cm tall (59-79 inches). In front of them is a small plaque that says, "Shōwa Tennō Yukari no Sakura Sha Chōtei," or cherry trees with a connection to the Showa Emperor, Chang-ting Tsieh. 

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Sakura trees and a plaque that says "cherry trees with a connection to the Showa Emperor, Chang-ting Tsieh." (© Robert D Eldridge)

Mr Tsieh, pronounced "Sha" in Japanese, is Ambassador Frank Chang-ting Tsieh, the Taiwanese representative in Japan based out of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.

April 29, as readers may recall, is Shōwa no Hi (Showa Day), a national holiday commemorating the birth of Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese chapter of the association wanted to plant the first saplings from Taiwan on a day that had a special connection to the man who helped dedicate the original tree.

The group has expanded its board and general membership. It also has plans to plant more saplings throughout Japan and will entertain requests as they come.

Incidentally, it was not only sakura that the Crown Prince planted during his visit to Taiwan. He also planted a banyan tree in Tainan and a new type of bamboo called zuichiku in Pingtung, in the far south. These species will also be brought back to Japan as part of the efforts of the aforementioned group.

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Emperor Showa in Taiwan.

Coming Home After a Century 

The then-Crown Prince traveled to more than 60 locations and participated in more than 200 events while in Taiwan before departing on April 27, 1923. He also celebrated his 22nd birthday while on the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship, Kongō, on his way back to Japan. 

One of the events he observed was a parade in his honor the first night there. More than half of Taipei's 170,000 residents turned out to welcome him. Staying at the residence of the Governor-General, he went to a balcony on the third floor to see everyone. 

Today, one can see the balcony and special circular stairs (taken from a naval ship) installed for him. These are now part of the Taipei Guest House, which is managed by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and used for special events.

In addition to Kitanomaru Park, there are two other locations at which the sakura have been planted in Japan. They are Aomori Prefecture's Kuroishi Shrine in November 2021 and Yasukuni Shrine in March 2022. Seasonal conditions permit the planting of sakura only during specific months, generally between mid-fall and early spring.

The Japanese chapter of the group, on whose board the author was asked to serve beginning in April 2023, is actively accepting requests for other potential sites throughout Japan. The group can be contacted via its website for submitting requests.

Logo of the Nihon Sakura Satogaeri no Kai

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Author: Robert D Eldridge

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