The Japanese white pine that survived the atomic bomb was given to the U.S. as a 200th birthday present. Here, it’s surrounded by morning glories in 2013.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY USDA-U.S. NATIONAL ARBORETUM
by Rachel A. Becker,
This Bonsai Survived Hiroshima But Its Story Was Nearly Lost
The Japanese white pine weathered four centuries of history, including the atomic bomb.
PUBLISHED AUGUST 5, 2015
A centuries-old bonsai that survived the bombing of Hiroshima is making worldwide headlines, but its caretakers wish the attention were focused more on the tree's role in peace than in war.
The Japanese white pine, which was potted 390 years ago, belonged to a family that lived within two miles of where American forces dropped the atomic bomb 70 years ago this week. The family had cared for the tree for five generations before giving it the United States in 1975.
As the anniversary of the bombing approaches, the tree's story has gone viral.
This little bonsai survived the Hiroshima bomb and is 390 years old. It was donated to the National Arboretum in D.… pic.twitter.com/wxvXjmNQUB
— Reddit Pics (@redditpicsbot) August 3, 2015
But the bonsai “was not given because of Hiroshima,” says Kathleen Emerson-Dell, who helps care for the tree at the U.S. National Arboretumin Washington, D.C. “It was a gift of friendship, and connection—the connection of two different cultures.”
In fact, the Arboretum wasn't aware of the Hiroshima connection until 2001, when two grandchildren of bonsai master Masaru Yamaki visited the arboretum’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, looking for their grandfather's tree. Yamaki had given the tree to the United States in advance of the country's bicentennial.
Since then, the arboretum hasn't kept the tree's survival of World War II a secret, but "we just don’t shout it from the rooftops,” Emerson-Dell says.
The bombing of Hiroshima was one of two atomic bomb attacks that led to the end of World War II, killing around 140,000 people and destroying the city. Yamaki’s perfectly crafted trees, including the white pine, were protected in a walled nursery.
Today, the white pine stands only a few feet tall, with a thick trunk and stubby green and yellowed needles. Wires keep the branches from reaching up toward the sun. “Wrinkles, and crud, and crookedness, all this stuff—it’s what gives it character,” says Emerson-Dell. “It's like Katharine Hepburn—it’s like, the beauty in age.”
Now, Dell hopes that people see the tree as a celebration of survival. “There’s some connection with a living being that has survived on this earth through who knows what,” she says. “I’m in its presence, and it was in the presence of other people from long ago.”
Reaching out to touch the pot, she says, “It’s like touching history.”
In 1976, bonsai master Masaru Yamaki donated a small white pine bonsai tree to the United States National Arboretum in Washington D.C. as one of 53 bonsai trees given by the Nippon Bonsai Association to the U.S. for its bicentennial celebration.
For 25 years the tree sat by the entrance of the arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, hardly gathering any notice. But like so many things we pass by without knowing anything about, this tree has a history … and a really remarkable one at that.
In 2001, two of Yamaki’s grandsons showed up at the Arboretum in search of the tree that had been in their family. Through a Japanese translator, the grandsons recounted the story of when the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped just two miles from their grandfather’s home. The windows were blown out, Yamaki was injured by flying glass. Ninety percent of the city was decimated, some 180,000 people were killed all told. But Yamaki’s beloved bonsais were protected by a tall wall surrounding his nursery, and miraculously, survived. The tree had been in the family for at least six generations.
“After going through what the family had gone through, to even donate one was pretty special and to donate this one was even more special,” says Jack Sustic, curator of the Bonsai and Penjing museum.
When the new Japanese Pavilion opened at the museum, the Yamaki Pine took its familiar place near the entrance. And more than seven decades after the bombing of Hiroshima, the tree continues to serve as a reminder of the importance of peace and the beauty of resilience.
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