MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — To most people the pink blossoms bursting from Sakura Park's cherry trees are simply harbingers of spring — but they're also a symbol of a century of friendship between Japan and New York.
A festival on Sat., April 14 will shine a spotlight on a mostly forgotten chapter in the park's history, when Japanese residents donated 2,000 cherry trees to the city as a symbol of amity. The trees were planted in what was then called Claremont Park at West 122nd Street and Riverside Drive, and the park was renamed Sakura, the Japanese word for cherry blossom.
Saturday's festivities kick off at 11 a.m. with a re-enactment of the 1912 ceremony when the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York presented the trees to the city.
"Japanese citizens living in the United States decided they wanted to demonstrate their affection for this country, and they wanted to give symbol of friendship, which were these trees," said Voza Rivers, executive producer of the Sakura Cherry Blossom Festival.
At noon, there will be a friendship concert across the street at Grant's Tomb featuring both Japanese and American artists, including the Harlem Japanese Choir, jazz great Thelonius Monk's son T.S. Monk, and several Japanese musicians including koto player Masayo Ishigure, pianist Takako Asahina, and singer Tokiko Kato.
The event will showcase the deep and unique bond between Japan and New York, particularly Harlem's African-American community, Rivers said.
"In the 1940s the Japanese were rounded up and put in internment camps across the United States," Rivers said. "Afterward a number of them settled in communities of color. We have heard those stories, and the horrific way this government treated them, so there's another kind of connection."
When African-American musicians and performers couldn't find work in the United States, they would travel to Japan, where they were warmly received, Rivers said.
Likewise, the Japanese have long embraced African-American culture, Rivers said. That goodwill was reciprocated last year after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Rivers said. A group called Harlem for Japan was formed, and held a concert where donations were collected.
The flowering trees were originally supposed to presented in 1909, when the city was celebrating the 100th anniversary of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton and the 300th anniversary of English explorer Henry Hudson's sighting of the Hudson River, according to the Parks Department. But the ship carrying the trees was lost at sea, and a new shipment of the cherry trees arrived in 1912.
"It's a bit of history that a lot of people don't know," Rivers said. "People see the trees and have no idea."