Make Ecologies Strange 2

Jewan Goo — “The Yoshino Cherry Tree Is A Political Weapon for Imposing Imperial Identity”

Jewan Goo is a 2nd year MFA candidate. He is from Seoul, South Korea.

For his art-based engagement, the artist reconstructs Korean histories that have only existed in written form, spanning from the Japanese colonial period to the present day, by creating dioramas using photographic evidence. Dioramas, along with other visual mediums, were employed as part of a broader cultural and visual apparatus utilized by colonial powers to reinforce imperialist ideologies and exert control over colonized territories. In this context, the artist’s diorama serves as an embodiment of colonial photography, offering a visual representation that brings to life historical events and experiences that were previously limited to written accounts. Through this artistic medium, the artist aims to shed light on the complexities and consequences of colonialism and the ways in which visual representation contributed to the perpetuation of imperialist narratives.

In 1912, the Yoshino cherry tree was introduced to Seoul and has since become deeply ingrained in Korean culture. Today, the tree is a popular attraction nationwide, with local governments and companies leveraging its popularity to attract tourists and customers. The term “Cherry Blossom Economy” was coined to describe the surge in economic activity during the two to three weeks when the trees are in bloom, with merchants near major cherry blossom attractions reporting significant increases in sales. While the cherry blossom festivals have become a major source of economic stimulation, it is important to acknowledge the tree’s history and the fact that it was initially a symbol of Japanese imperialism. The government has held festivals around Seoul since 2000, and while many older Koreans remember the tree’s complicated past, the history is often overlooked in favor of its commercial value. It is important to recognize and remember the complex history of the Yoshino cherry tree, as it offers a different perspective on this familiar symbol.

The tree’s scientific name is Prunus yedoensis and it was registered by Japanese botanist Jinzō Matsumura. In 1901, Jinzō Matsumura of Japan published data on the cherry trees in the Tokyo area and became known around the world. At this time, Jinzō Matsumura got the name Prunus yedoensis by putting Edo, the old name of Tokyo, into the scientific name. Prunus yedoensis, also known as Yoshino Cherry, is a charming cherry tree species that is native to Japan. Appreciated for its magnificent beauty, it is widely planted in parks, gardens, and along streetscapes throughout Japan, the United States, and other countries. The origins of Yoshino Cherry can be traced back to the area around Tokyo, where it was first cultivated in the early 18th century. Since then, it has become increasingly popular, thanks to its stunning pink and white flowers that bloom in the spring. This deciduous tree can reach up to 10-12 meters (30-40 feet) in height and has a broad conical shape, with horizontal branching and smooth, gray-brown bark. The leaves are bright green during the spring and summer and turn yellow, orange, and red during the fall. Its flowers are the Yoshino Cherry’s most notable feature, with pink or white hues, five petals arranged in clusters of two to five, and can cover the entire tree in a stunning profusion of blossoms that last several weeks. Yoshino Cherry is not only an ornamental plant, but it is also a diploid species with a relatively small genome size, making it useful for genetic and genomic research. Additionally, it provides an essential source of nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators, making it vital for supporting ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity. The cultivation and improvement of the Yoshino cherry tree in Japan can be attributed to its cultural significance and aesthetic value. 

Cherry blossom viewing, or “hanami,” has been a cherished tradition in Japan for centuries, where people gather to appreciate the beauty of cherry blossoms and celebrate the arrival of spring. The Yoshino cherry, with its attractive pink and white flowers, became increasingly popular during the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the Japanese government actively promoted the cultivation of cherry trees throughout the country. This led to the development of new cultivars and the improvement of existing ones, including the Yoshino cherry, to enhance their ornamental value and ensure abundant blooms during the spring season. Japan’s efforts to improve the Yoshino cherry tree and other cherry tree species have also been driven by the desire to showcase Japan’s cultural heritage and promote tourism. 

The Yoshino Cherry tree is not the official national flower of Japan, but it has become a prominent symbol of Japanese culture and identity. During the early 20th century, as Japan expanded its empire-building efforts across Asia, the cherry blossom was used as a cultural symbol to promote Japanese nationalism and imperialism. This association of the cherry blossom with Japanese military might can be traced back to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. It was used as a propaganda tool to rally support for the Japanese military effort, with propaganda posters and postcards depicting cherry blossoms falling like snow over Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. This romanticized image created a powerful and idealized perception of the Japanese military as strong, honorable, and unified. The cherry blossom continued to be used as a symbol of Japanese nationalism and imperialism in the years leading up to World War II. The Japanese government used cherry blossom imagery extensively in its propaganda efforts to portray Japan as a powerful and invincible nation with a unique culture and history. Despite not being the official national flower of Japan, the cherry blossom’s cultural significance and widespread popularity made it a potent symbol that could be easily deployed to promote nationalistic and imperialistic ideas. The Japanese government used the cherry blossom tree as a symbol of imperialism for several reasons. First, the cherry blossom has long been a significant symbol of Japanese culture and identity, representing qualities such as beauty, transience, and the impermanence of life. By associating the cherry blossom with Japanese identity, the government sought to create a sense of national pride and unity among the Japanese people. The government used the cherry blossom as a symbol of Japan’s military might and expansionist ambitions. 

The image of cherry blossoms falling like snow over Japanese soldiers on the battlefield during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, for example, was depicted in propaganda posters and postcards, creating a powerful and romanticized image of the Japanese military as strong, honorable, and unified. By using this symbol, the government sought to rally support for its military campaigns and promote Japanese nationalism. The cherry blossom was used as a symbol of Japan’s unique culture and history, which the government sought to promote and protect. By emphasizing the importance of Japanese culture and heritage, the government aimed to bolster national pride and identity, while also reinforcing the idea that Japan was a special and unique nation that deserved respect and admiration from other countries. The cherry blossom has long been associated with the samurai warrior class, who were a symbol of Japanese strength and military might. 

The cherry blossom has a short blooming period, which symbolized the fleeting nature of life and the need to seize opportunities when they arise, which was a sentiment that resonated with the Japanese people during a time of rapid industrialization and expansion. Finally, the cherry blossom’s delicate beauty and association with the transience of life made it a powerful symbol of sacrifice, which the Japanese government used to promote the idea that individual sacrifice was necessary for the good of the nation. By associating the cherry blossom tree with these powerful and emotive ideas, the Japanese government was able to create a cultural symbol that could be used to promote nationalism and imperialistic ideas both domestically and internationally. The act of instilling the expectation that certain events will bring modernization is still used as a tool today, just like the Japan Empire did in the past.  The cherry blossom’s widespread popularity and cultural significance made it an effective tool for promoting the Japanese government’s agenda, and its use as a symbol of Japanese imperialism has left a lasting legacy on the country’s cultural and political history.

After Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, there was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, and some people saw the cherry blossom trees as symbols of the former colonizers. there were some instances where cherry blossom trees were cut down in South Korea after the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. This was partly due to the negative associations that cherry blossom trees had with Japanese imperialism and the desire to remove symbols of the former colonial power. Additionally, some cherry blossom trees were cut down during the post-war reconstruction period to make way for new buildings and infrastructure. As a result, some cherry blossom trees, particularly those that had been planted by the Japanese government during the colonial period, were cut down or uprooted as acts of resistance and defiance. There are the most ginkgo trees in Seoul’s street trees, but cherry trees are overwhelmingly No. 1 with 1.56 million trees nationwide, and most of them are Yoshino Cherry trees. This is because a large number of cherry trees were planted to attract cherry blossom festivals in each region. There are native cherry blossom trees in China, Japan, and Korea. The Wang Cherry Project 2050 is an organization that advocates a campaign to plant Korean native cherry trees, Prunus yedoensis for. Nudiflora, instead of Japanese cherry trees for street trees as well as parks and public facilities nationwide by 2050. According to the group’s survey of 636 cherry trees in Yeouido, 94.3% were Japanese royal cherry trees, and none of them were Korean native cherry trees. 

Today, Yoshino cherry trees are an example of common-sense ecology for Koreans because Yoshino Cherry Trees are commonly planted in Korea due to their adaptability to the local climate and environment. With Korea’s temperate climate and four distinct seasons, the deciduous Yoshino Cherry tree is an ideal choice as it can withstand cold winters and hot summers. Furthermore, the Yoshino Cherry is resistant to pests and diseases that are prevalent in Korea, making it an easy-to-maintain and sturdy species of tree. Apart from its practical advantages, the Yoshino Cherry also holds cultural and aesthetic significance in Korea. The cherry blossom is an adored symbol of spring and rebirth, and the annual cherry blossom festival in Korea attracts millions of tourists every year. Planting Yoshino Cherry Trees in public spaces and parks not only enhances the beauty of the surroundings but also promotes a sense of community and connection with nature. The history of Yoshino cherry trees should not be taken for granted. 

My intervention encourages viewers to question the origins and meanings of symbols and traditions that are often taken for granted, and to consider how they have been used and interpreted throughout history. By doing so, readers can gain a more nuanced understanding of the world around us and the ways in which ideas and beliefs are transmitted and transformed over time. The study of the imperial history of the Yoshino cherry tree also prompts us to reflect on our own cultural and historical contexts and how they shape our understanding of the world. My intervention also urges viewers to consider the broader implications of using natural symbols for political purposes. It highlights how natural elements like trees and flowers can be powerful tools for promoting nationalist or imperialist ideas. This can have a lasting impact on how these symbols are perceived and valued by different cultures and societies. This paper highlights the significance of recognizing and learning about complex histories, even if they are uncomfortable or controversial. By delving into the imperial history of Yoshino cherry trees, readers are reminded of the need to critically examine historical narratives that shape our understanding of the world around us. This intervention urges people to appreciate the importance of taking an approach to studying cultural and natural symbols, and to be mindful of their potential political implications.

25 Ann McClellan and Ron Blunt, Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2014).

26 Jim Ollhoff, Samurai (Edina, MN: ABDO Pub., 2008).

27 David Fedman, Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020).