by Naoko Abe
“To Ingram, the way that Japan had lurched into a culture of extreme uniformity was alien, restrictive and potentially dangerous. The disappearance of diversity, highlighted by the extinction of the Taihaku cherry, was indicative of Japan’s militaristic mood in the 1920s and 1930s. The ubiquity of the lookalike Somei-yoshino cherry spoke volumes about the dark path of conformity which the Japanese followed, until their 1945 defeat.”
Born in 1880 and living to be a centenarian, Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram was a British ornithologist and horticulturalist who developed a special interest in Japan after traveling there in 1905 and 1907 and returning again in 1926. Initially obsessed with birds, Ingram turned to plants after he began to feel that the birding world was becoming too crowded. He instead turned his attention to Japanese flowering cherry trees after purchasing a property in Kent that sported two rare Taihaku cherries in the garden. Meanwhile in Japan, the human-bred Yoshino cherry had risen to dominance, planted everywhere by the government, both before and after the war. On his third visit in 1926, Ingram was astonished to find that the Yoshino cherry dominated the urban landscape, creating visual uniformity but threatening the biodiversity of the species. A reluctant public lecture on the subject went largely unheeded, and Ingram returned to England determined to preserve the unique cherry trees in his keeping.
This fascinating history was originally published in Japanese in 2016 before being reworked for an English audience and published in 2019 as ‘Cherry’ Ingram in the United Kingdom, and The Sakura Obsession in the United States. The English edition incorporates additional historical and cultural information for a Western audience. Both versions were written by Naoko Abe, a Japanese journalist who now lives and works in London. The audio version is capably narrated by Ellen Archer, with occasional interludes from Nicholas Guy Smith when a section is quoting directly from Ingram’s papers, which his family allowed Abe access to during her research.
Ingram’s obsession with Japanese flora and fauna was life-long but the relationship proved to be complex as Japan and Britain’s relations deteriorated throughout the early twentieth century, and Ingram’s daughter-in-law became a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in Hong Kong after being posted there as a nurse. The tensions caused some Japanese sakuramori (cherry blossom guardians or keepers) to decline rare cuttings Ingram offered to send back to them in the 1930s, fearing the political implications of such a gift. While the cherry blossom had long been a national symbol in Japan, the military government leaned hard into one particular facet of that ideology, emphasizing that its citizens must always be ready to fall like the cherry blossoms when called to do so by their country. During this time the government planted many fast-growing Yoshino cherries on ceremonial occasions and gifted many abroad. Despite Ingram’s efforts, Yoshino cherries remained the most popular variety in urban Japan even after the war, because they were easy to replant after American firebombing and nuclear weapons devastated many of Japan’s cities.
The Sakura Obsession contains a fair bit of introspection about Japan’s culpability in the war, and how the militaristic government of the period exploited the history and symbolism of the cherry blossom to send a generation of young men to their early deaths even well after the war was effectively lost. Abe also delves into how that same ideology helped the Yoshino cherry become the predominant variety in urban Japan, threatening the local biodiversity. Unlike other artifacts exported (and often outright stolen) from the East by colonial powers, plants continue to grow and propagate, and their cuttings or scions can be returned to the places that gave birth them while also remaining in their transplanted soil around the world. Ingram obtained cuttings from acquaintances and fellow enthusiasts in Japan and sent their descendants and hybrids back in turn. What the book does not explore so much while venerating Collingwood Ingram for preserving the various cherry blossom varieties abroad, is the implications it might have for the ecosystem of the British Isles of introducing so many non-native species, often at the expense of local fruit-bearing varieties. Nevertheless, I found this to be a fascinating and informative read.
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