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‘Hiroshima Survivor Trees’ gifted to Descanso Gardens to symbolize peace

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A “Hiroshima Survivor” persimmon tree is planted during a special ceremony held Sunday morning at Descanso Gardens. The tree was one of two gifted to the gardens as symbols of peace and hope by the Rotary Club of Little Tokyo’s Heiwa: Hiroshima Survivor Tree group.
(Rebecca O’Neil)

Three survivors of the United States’ 1945 bombing of Hiroshima were on hand in Descanso Gardens Sunday, Jan. 19.

One was 93-year-old Jiro Kawatsuma, a Japanese resident touring the U.S. to promote peace via nuclear disarmament, while the day’s two honorees were persimmon seedlings.

According to Makiko Nakasone, charter president of the Rotary Club of Little Tokyo, the seedlings are from one of the 171 trees that survived the nuclear attack that killed 140,000 people and devastated the city of Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 8, 1945.

In the aftermath, experts predicted the city’s soil would remain too toxic to give life to anything for the next 75 years.

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“To their pleasant surprise, after several months, in the spring of 1946, people started to see new buds springing out from the seemingly burnt trees. That gave them hope that they too could live, and [the trees] became a symbol of hope and peace,” said Nakasone, a La Cañada Flintridge resident.

“These trees went through what I went through,” noted bombing survivor Kawatsuma, who continues to receive treatment for the effects of radiation on his body.

Speaking through an interpreter, Kawatsuma recalled seeing 30 horribly burned young women, marching with outstretched arms to keep their dangling skin from sticking to their bodies. Their condition rendered them unrecognizable to their own mothers.

“They looked like soldiers,” Kawatsuma recounted. “This is a cruel, miserable sight that stayed with me.”

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Kawatsuma, whose sister died in the attack, said he left Hiroshima five years ago with three motives in mind: to tell people how horrible the bombing was, to promote peace, and help propagate and distribute survivor trees.

Nakasone reached out to Descanso Gardens Executive Director Juliann Rooke on behalf of Rotary Heiwa: Hiroshima Survivor Tree — a group of Rotarians in Japan, the U.S. and Russia — to consider participating in the Hiroshima Survivor Tree Re-Planting Project. The group had planted its first survivor, a camellia, in Storrier-Stearns Japanese Garden in Pasadena in 2016.

“I didn’t really have to think,” said Nakasone, a resident of La Cañada Flintridge. “I’ve always had admiration and respect for this garden — for its beauty, for its inclusiveness.”

Rooke was enthusiastic about the gift.

“Frankly, because of the gravity and enormity of it, I have found it difficult to find too many words beyond ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m grateful,’” Rooke said. “I want to be part of the message of peace and hope.

“I have an 88-year-old garden that I’m in charge of,” she said. “I hope when people walk through they’ll find peace in every aspect.”

Eli Yoshimura, Descanso’s director of education, said Sunday’s ceremony reflects the core of Descanso’s mission: to connect people to natural beauty and one another.

“We think a lot about how we can encourage connections between the gardens and all the different stories,” Yoshimura said. “One of our Japanese garden experts talks about how people make a garden complete and also that gardens are always growing and changing.”

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Descanso Gardens has long ties to the Japanese community in Los Angeles.

According to the American Camellia Society, Descanso Gardens is home to North America’s largest camellia collection.

“A lot of our camellias were acquired by the former owner of the Gardens during World War II, when the Japanese nurserymen were forced to go to internment camps,” Yoshimura said.

After the county purchased Descanso from E. Manchester Boddy in 1953, the newly formed nonprofit guild’s first project was creating a Japanese garden with the help of community members, said Yoshimura.

Sunday’s dedication concluded with a performance by pianist Yuko Mabuchi. The title of her closing song, “Ue o Muite Arukō,” means “Let us walk looking up so that your tears don’t fall,” Nakasone explained.

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