Banzai / Bonsai

December 7, 1941, was the “date that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it. On that date, 74 years ago today, aircraft of the Empire of Japan, flying off six aircraft carriers, conducted a surprise attack on the American naval base and surrounding military installations at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawai’i, then an American Territory. The damage was enormous. 2403 Americans were killed and another 1178 injured. All eight American battleships then docked at Pearl Harbor were hit and badly damaged, with four sunk outright. The Japanese wanted to keep America from interfering with its upcoming plans to expand its conquests in the Asian Pacific. They succeeded in the short term, but of course they drew America into the World War then going on in Europe and Asia, and they lived to regret that. The Americans interfered mightily with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Less than four years later B-29 bombers, which by then could fly with near impunity throughout the Pacific, dropped single atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then, lacking an immediate Japanese capitulation, Nagasaki. The consequences—129,000 deaths, nearly all civilian—persuaded the Japanese to surrender.

I was only two years old on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, but I grew up in a world in which “Pearl Harbor” was synonymous with deceit and treachery. I grew up in a world in which basic commodities were rationed because of the war effort, in which we drove a 1937 Chevy through whose floorboards you could see the pavement because new cars were unavailable. In that world Mitsubishi was not a car manufacturer, but the maker of a deadly fighter aircraft that killed men of my father’s generation. I remember the day of the Japanese surrender in August of 1945, and nobody was sorry that those nuclear bombs had been dropped. That night Dad woke us up to see the fireworks several miles away over the Boston skyline. When I went to college twelve years later a surprise test was still called a “Jap quiz.”

pine bonsai

Japanese Pine Bonsai, a gift to the American people from Nagasaki.

This fall we visited the National Arboretum’s Bonsai gardens. This remarkable collection of small trees represents the best in the ancient practice of trimming the branches and roots of seedling trees so that they become miniaturized and grow in pots. “Bonsai” is a Japanese term, but like so much else in Japanese culture the process evolved its distinctive characteristics from Chinese origins. Even the term is a corruption of “penzai” and “penjing,” words associated with the original Chinese ways. I came across one bonsai specimen that dated to 1939, the year I was born. I observed that if I had been given such constant care and loving attention since then, I’d probably be in better shape than I am. But luckily we humans are left to grow up somewhat wildly, arms akimbo, on our own. Bonsais can last longer than we humans; a couple of specimens in the collection date to the eighteenth century.

Among the many noble Japanese Pine bonsai, one stands out. It was a gift from a Japanese family to the American nation in 1975, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender.  The plant had been nurtured by the same Japanese family for five generations. Remarkably the plant and the family were living in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Remarkably, both the plant and the family survived. Today its sturdy trunk, its carefully sculpted clusters of branches, its dense miniature needles, its ironic mushroom-cloud shape, all bear witness to life. That miniature pine tree, still growing in the capital city of the country that defeated its nation of origin in war, symbolizes ongoing compassion, nurture, and vitality. These qualities reflect the new bonds between the Japanese and American people. Its existence and presence make me hopeful that time can restore all human bonds, that enmity and violence can be subdued by the embrace of our common humanity.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.

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