Bonsai, nearly 400 years old, survived Hiroshima

Bonsai tree, nearly 400 years old, survived Hiroshima and is still flourishing in D.C.

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WASHINGTON — In a small, arboreal corner of Washington, D.C., a relic of a horrific day 70 years ago lives in relative obscurity.

A bonsai tree, part of a collection at the National Arboretum, came to the garden’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in 1976 as a gift of friendship from Japanese bonsai master Masaru Yamaki. But the diminutive tree’s past was unknown to museum staff until 2001, when Yamaki’s grandsons visited the bonsai and revealed its history: The tree survived the world’s first nuclear attack, dropped 70 years ago Thursday in Hiroshima, Japan.

The museum didn’t broadcast this history, believing the tree’s beauty and symbol of friendship between the two countries is more relevant to its meaning, according to Kathleen Emerson-Dell, assistant curator for artifact collections at the museum. But, in the days before Thursday’s anniversary of the horrific event, a steady stream of visitors came flowing through the museum to observe the tree. On Tuesday, museum staff added a description below the tree of the bonsai’s rich history.

“We really don’t play up the idea of its surviving Hiroshima,” Emerson-Bell said. “It’s just a fact of life.” In fact, the tree has survived much more — it’s nearly 400 years old.

William Lee, a rising junior at American University, saw the tree for the first time Wednesday. Upon learning more about its history, he said, the tree, to him, represents peace between Japan and the U.S.

“It’s a lot about forgiveness,” said Lee, observing the tree in sweltering heat. “About 30 years after the bombing it was donated as a sign of friendship from Japan. That’s incredible.”

When the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Yamaki and his family were inside their home less than 2 miles away from the explosion. The devastating event killed around 140,000 people, but Yamaki and his family survived largely unhurt, with only some minor injuries from flying glass fragments. Sitting just outside of their house, in a walled nursery, the bonsai tree stood, unharmed.

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