Behind the branches and the blossom of the soon-to-be-planted cherry trees in The Regent’s Park is a story of mutual respect and friendship between Japan and the UK that first took root over 150 years ago. The new cherry trees are a symbol of this special relationship.
The trees are a gift from Japan as part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-20, that will see 6,500 planted in parks and schools around the UK. To mark the start of the project 36 cherry trees will be planted in The Regent’s Park next week - the first of 125 in The Royal Parks.
The trees will be part of a growing cross-cultural legacy between the two countries that spans from business and industry to horticulture. They’re a fitting gift, as this isn’t the first time that a cherry tree has been given by one country and gratefully received by the other.
The return of the great white cherry
Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram was an expert gardener, ornithologist and plant collector, with a passion matched by his knowledge of Japanese flowering cherry trees. He was responsible for introducing a number of cherry trees to the UK, including some hybrids that he’d created himself.
Ingram was invited to give a speech to the Japanese Cherry Association during his trip to Japan in 1926. While on the trip he was shown a painting of a beautiful cherry tree with white blossom, believed to have died out in Japan. Ingram recalled having taken cuttings from a tree of the same species in a garden in Sussex.
From the cuttings the ‘Taihaku’, also called the great white cherry, was reintroduced to Japan and remains popular around the world to this day. It’s known for its large, bright white flowers – ‘Taihaku’ means ‘great white’ in Japanese – and is one of several varieties being planted in Regent’s Park.
It’s safe to say that since 1926 the exchange of culture between the two countries has reached new heights. Japanese animation, art and especially food have seen a huge rise in popularity in the UK in recent years. Across the globe, Japanese people have a keen interest in British tradition, fashion and music, evidenced when English fans at the 2010 World Cup enjoyed a very warm welcome.
The Chōshū Five
This interest in British culture extends all the way to Japan’s Imperial family. Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan both spent years studying in Oxford. Emperor Naruhito has even published a book about his experience.
A famous example from the past is of the Chōshū Five. Named after the domain of Japan they were from, they were a group of five students that travelled overseas hoping to gain better knowledge of western countries and technology. The Chōshū Domain hoped what they learned would help overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled the land at the time.
The students, disguised as English sailors, set sail from Japan to begin studying at University College London in 1863, leaving the country at a time when the shogunate had made it illegal for Japanese people to travel overseas.
Among the students was Ito Hirobumi, who would go on to become Japan’s first Prime Minister and held the position four times. Inoue Masaru, known as “the godfather of Japanese railways ”, was also a member of the five. As his name suggests, he was a hugely influential figure in establishing Japan’s world class railways. Today a UCL scholarship in his name is available for students wishing to study in Japan.
In December 2009, a high-speed train built by Hitachi began running regularly in the UK. An element of the technology first imported by Japan from the UK, in part through Inoue Masaru’s studies all those years ago at the end of the 19th Century, has been developed and exported back to the country of its origin. It’s an apt reciprocation over 150 years in the making.
The new cherry trees in The Regent’s Park will begin flowering next spring. They tend to live for around 50 years so we hope it will be the first blossom of many in the years to come – each tiny petal a reminder of the trees’ history and the special bond between two countries.