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395-year-old Bonsai Tree that survived the 1945 Hiroshima bombing continues to flourish in D.C.

The tree came to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in 1975 as a gift of friendship from Japanese bonsai master Masaru Yamaki.

395-year-old Bonsai Tree that survived the 1945 Hiroshima bombing continues to flourish in D.C.
Cover Image Source: The National Bonsai Foundation

In a quaint corner of a Washington, D.C. building grows a 395-year-old relic that bore witness to a day that changed the nature of warfare 75 years ago. A regal part of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, the Japanese white pine bonsai initially belonged to a family that lived within two miles of where American forces dropped the world's first atomic bomb in 1945. Having miraculously survived the bombing of Hiroshima, it came to the garden's National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in 1975 as a gift of friendship from Japanese bonsai master Masaru Yamaki, reports National Geographic.


Potted 395 years ago, five generations of the family had cared for the tree before it traveled to the United States. However, according to USA Today, the tree's past remained unknown to the museum staff until 2001 when Yamaki's grandsons visited the bonsai and revealed its story. When the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Yamaki and his family were less than 2 miles away from the explosion inside the safety of their home. While the devastating event claimed the lives of about 140,000 people, the bonsai master and his family survived with only some minor injuries from flying glass fragments. So did the white pine that stood just outside of their house in a walled nursery.


It went on to become one of the 53 bonsais gifted to the U.S. on the occasion of the American Bicentennial in 1976. "The trees, which were from private collections, were selected by the Nippon Bonsai Association with financial assistance given by the Japan Foundation," states The National Bonsai Foundation website. "The trees arrived in early 1975 in the United States and spent a year in quarantine at Glenn Dale, Maryland.  On July 19, 1976, the collection was dedicated in a ceremony attended by many dignitaries from both countries. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was the featured speaker and accepted the gift on behalf of the United States."


Michael James, an agricultural science research technician, and assistant to the curator at the museum revealed that each tree in the collection had been designed to evoke a certain kind of emotion, weight, and style. "You look at it, and instantly you see something incredibly beautiful," he said. "I think the whole art form of bonsai itself can have many meanings: it's peaceful, it's appreciative of nature, it's meditative. That's why I love this art form."


"So many generations have worked on this tree," James added. "That individual artist had such a great vision, and it keeps growing." While the museum doesn't keep the white pine's survival of World War II a secret, it doesn't broadcast it either. "We just don’t shout it from the rooftops," said Kathleen Emerson-Dell, who helps care for the tree at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She explained that the bonsai "was not given because of Hiroshima. Instead, it "was a gift of friendship, and connection—the connection of two different cultures," said Emerson-Dell.


"We really don't play up the idea of its surviving Hiroshima," she explained in 2015. "It's just a fact of life." Today, the white pine stands only a few feet tall with stubby green and yellowed needles and a thick trunk. "Wrinkles, and crud, and crookedness, all this stuff—it’s what gives it character," said Emerson-Dell. "It's like Katharine Hepburn—it’s like, the beauty in age." She hopes that people see the bonsai as a celebration of survival. "There’s some connection with a living being that has survived on this earth through who knows what," said Emerson-Dell. "I'm in its presence, and it was in the presence of other people from long ago."

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