Japan’s Imperial Family Has Added to Hawai‘i’s Beauty With Trees They Planted
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Two trees stand just a stone’s throw away from each other in the peaceful Japanese garden behind Jefferson Hall on the grounds of the East-West Center. One tree towers over the other, although the much shorter one is hardly a shrinking violet.
The shorter tree, a Japanese Black Pine, was planted by Princess Sayako, the only daughter and youngest child of now-retired Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, during her visit to the center in September of 1999. (Sayako no longer holds the title of princess due to her marriage to a man outside of Japan’s imperial family in November 2005.) Sayako’s tree may be short, standing only a few feet off the ground, but it looks genki (healthy) and happy (if one could attribute a human emotion to a tree). It appears to reach upwards, with a copious amount of dark green pine needles all pointing toward the sky, making for a lush crown (the term used for the part of a tree that includes the branches and leaves). Its trunk is surprisingly thin considering all it has to bear.
The taller of the two trees is considerably older than the one Sayako planted. It was planted by her parents on their visit to Hawai‘i in 1964, before Sayako was born. The plaque in front of the tree identifies it as a Coral Shower Tree, or Cassia grandis.
“In late Spring,” the plaque reads, “this tree’s beautiful pink-lavender clusters of buds open into thick bundles of vibrant coral-pink flowers along its majestic branches.”
Akihito’s tree is now well over a half-century old, as is the East-West Center, which was established by Congress in 1960 “. . . to foster better relations and understanding among the peoples of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific islands through programs of cooperative study, training, and research,” according to its website.
Akihito was only 30 years old when he planted the tree, coincidentally the same age Sayako was when she planted the Japanese Black Pine. Her parents’ trip to Hawai‘i in 1964 was brief, but filled with numerous activities. In addition to planting the Coral Shower Tree, her father also released koi (carp) into the garden’s stream as part of a traditional blessing and her mother bent over slightly at the stream’s edge to feed them.
Sayako’s 1999 visit was her first to Hawai‘i and she performed her official duties with the same graciousness and refinement that her parents have demonstrated during their visits to the Islands. She solemnly laid a wreath at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl to honor Americans who gave their lives for their country in World War II and later stopped at a section of the cemetery where hundreds of Japanese Americans who fought and died for the United States in World War II are buried.
More than a decade earlier, in June 1985, Sayako’s uncle and aunt — Prince Hitachi (younger brother of Akihito) and his wife Princess Hanako — planted a fukugi, or “happiness,” tree at Punchbowl to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Hawai‘i of the first kanyaku imin, or contract immigrants, from Japan. They opened the door to mass immigration to the Islands from Japan and changed Hawai‘i forever. That fukugi planted by Prince Hitachi was also the first tree planted as part of then-first lady Jean Ariyoshi’s “One Million Trees of Aloha” effort.
In a separate event, Sayako also met with former recipients of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship and others associated with the educational foundation that was established in 1959 in honor of her parents’ marriage.
The ceremonial act of planting trees is no small matter to Japanese royalty. Akihito planted trees in at least two other locations on O‘ahu: on the grounds of the Japanese Consulate in Nu‘uanu and in Kapi‘olani Park.
In September 1960, as Crown Prince and Princess, Akihito and Michiko planted a Monkeypod tree that is now mature with an expansive crown that provides shade and natural beauty on the consulate grounds. In June 1994, they planted a second tree on the consulate grounds — a Rainbow Shower Tree in the garden behind the official residence. Their trees aren’t the only ones that were planted by a Japanese emperor and empress.
In October 1975, Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako planted a Kukui Tree to commemorate their historic visit. Almost a decade later, in June 1985, Prince Hitachi and Princess Hanako planted a fukugi tree on the Consulate grounds.
The year 2009 was the last time Emperor Akihito and Princess Michiko visited Hawai‘i. Their only public appearance was at Kapi‘olani Park, specifically chosen so they could revisit the Rainbow Shower Tree they planted in September of 1960.
By 2009, the statue of Queen Kapi‘olani by artist Holly Young had been installed at the west end of the park. Japan’s royal family has an indirect historical connection to Queen Kapi‘olani, the wife of King Kaläkaua. In 1881, Kaläkaua visited Emperor Meiji — Emperor Akihito’s great-grandfather — in Japan and forged an enduring relationship between the two island nations.
Kaläkaua is said to have proposed a marriage between his niece, Princess Ka‘iulani, and a
Japanese prince in the hopes of strengthening a political alliance between Japan and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Although a marriage did not materialize, Kaläkaua sent young Hawaiian scholars to Japan to study. They included brothers James Haku‘ole and Isaac Harbottle from Maui. An article on the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s website notes: “They [Harbottles] arrived in Japan in 1882 to study the Japanese language and culture at the Nobles School (Kuwazoku Gakko), with the aim of using their knowledge to aid in international affairs and the establishment of an immigrant worker program. This program was established in 1885 and led to the immigration of Japanese workers in Hawai‘i.”
Prince Akishino, the younger son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and his wife, Princess Kiko, were the most recent Japanese royals to plant a tree in Hawai‘i. They visited Hawai‘i last June to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of Japanese immigrants, the Gannenmono, in Hawai‘i in 1868. The Prince and Princess planted a Rainbow Shower Tree at Thomas Square.
With his brother’s elevation to emperor, Akishino and Kiko also took a step up, becoming crown prince and crown princess, respectively, since Naruhito has no male children. Akishino is now next in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, followed by his son Hisahito, who is 12 years old.
The ceremonial planting of trees by members of Japan’s imperial family serves as a constant reminder of the special relationship between Japan and Hawai‘i and the enduring ties that have connected our two island homes for more than 150 years. Over the decades, the trees have grown taller and stronger and their roots have grown deeper in Hawaii’s soil. They enhance the natural beauty of their surroundings. Saplings that grow into mature trees, like children who grow into mature adults, embody the passage of time. Although people age, retire and pass away, the trees they planted during their lifetime remind us of their connection to the communities they visited or in which they lived.
In June of 2018, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attended an annual national tree-planting festival and ceremony in Fukushima Prefecture in an area that was hard hit by the devastating tsunami of March 2011. The Japan Times reported that the couple planted a variety of trees and sowed seeds of four tree species. Poignantly, part of this effort was to help create a safety buffer between the human population and potential natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. The couple has attended a tree-planting ceremony each year in Japan since Akihito ascended the throne. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako are expected to carry on the tradition of their parents and grandparents by attending this year’s ceremony in Aichi Prefecture.
Aside from their ceremonial, symbolic and sentimental meanings, trees are also an essential component of human existence. Scientists have described them as the “lungs of the earth,” helping to clean the air of carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere for humans and animals to breathe. One writer called our forests “a giant vacuum cleaner.” If everyone would plant one tree, what a difference it would make in the world.
Japan’s imperial family has done their part. When they visit Hawai‘i to see how “their” trees are doing, they are, in a sense, visiting an old friend they have not seen in a long time. In the intervening years, those trees have been doing their part to help beautify the environment, provide shade, serve as a symbol of friendship and goodwill, hold the soil in place during bad weather and clean the air of harmful toxins. And the best part of all is that they will continue to do these things long after those who planted them leave this earth.
Kevin Kawamoto is a frequent contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald and took the lead in our features on the historic abdication of Emperor Akihito in our April 19 and May 3 editions. His interest in Japan’s imperial family dates back to his selection as a Crown Prince Akihito Scholar, which afforded him the opportunity to study at the Center for Japanese Studies at Nanzan University in Nagoya from 1990 to 1991. In 1991, he participated in a private audience with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at Akasaka Palace in Tökyö. Kevin met the imperial couple again at receptions in Honolulu in 1994 and 2009. He also met then-Princess Sayako during her 1999 visit to Honolulu.
Kevin earned his master’s degree in communication from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a second master’s in social work, as well as his Ph.D. in communications from the University of Washington in Seattle. He taught at both the University of Washington and the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.