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Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2012

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For whom the bell tolls: Staff at the Wentworth By the Sea Hotel in Newcastle, New Hampshire, line up behind a cherry sapling to ring bells at 3:47 p.m. Sept. 5 to celebrate the signing of the 1905 Portsmouth Treaty, which ended the Russo-Japanese War. WENTWORTH BY THE SEA HOTEL / KYODO

Japanese cherry trees take off in war-treaty town


PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — Young cherry saplings growing around Portsmouth, part of the recent festivities for the 107th anniversary of a treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, stand as a testament to the city's "citizen diplomacy," and residents of New Hampshire hope to plant more throughout the state to remember their past.

"We're using the cherry tree as a living memorial to the treaty," Charles Doleac, president of the Japan-America Society of New Hampshire, said recently, explaining how the iconic tree is now associated with the gift Japan gave to Washington in 1912.

Doleac emphasized that the more than 3,000 trees given by then-Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki was a gift made largely as an expression of gratitude for American diplomatic efforts that led to the signing of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in 1905. It officially ended the bloody fighting, which at the time was the largest land and sea war the world had seen.

After the turn of the last century, the small New England city was selected by President Theodore Roosevelt as a neutral meeting place for the two belligerents.

It offered the advantages of having a secure navy base, enthusiastic state and local officials and a welcoming community, which on Sept. 7 played host to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke to thousands outside a local museum.

The four young trees planted this year at historical sites around Portsmouth, including the Strawbery Banke Museum, where Obama spoke, were grown from cuttings of the original Washington trees.

"We decided when we saw that we are the ones in part responsible for the cherry trees being in Washington, there can be no better memorial . . . than saplings," Doleac said.

The landmark Portsmouth Peace Treaty came about only after an intense monthlong negotiation process led by Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura and his Russian counterpart, Serge Witte.

Citizen diplomacy also played its part. Local people in New Hampshire stepped in by hosting parties, organizing events and participating in outings that brought the Japanese and Russians together in an effort to overcome an impasse that threatened to end the talks.

"It involved ordinary people who chose to get up out of the house on Sundays and to dress up and participate in what was going on downtown," Stephanie Seacord, the public relations director for the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Anniversary Committee said, stressing the important role ordinary citizens took. "In New Hampshire people get involved."

Since 2010, when the New Hampshire Legislature first signed a bill declaring Sept. 5 as Portsmouth Peace Treaty Day, bells have been sounded throughout the city at the precise moment the treaty was signed at 3:47 p.m.

Doleac and Seacord believe the addition of the saplings brings a new level of awareness to immortalizing the day because of the popularity of the trees. "The cherry trees have a profound effect on any person," Doleac noted.

In addition to a bell-ringing ceremony around a young cherry tree at the Wentworth By the Sea Hotel, where the diplomats stayed, there were similar events at the John Paul Jones House Museum, where a centennial treaty exhibit is housed, and the Strawbery Banke Museum, where important dialogue between locals and diplomats took place.

Also, at the Portsmouth naval shipyard, the traditional whistle-blowing event kicked off the bell-ringing that followed throughout the area with naval personnel saluting nearby.

The navy base also received a seedling this year and had previously purchased another cherry tree to mark the Portsmouth Treaty centennial in 2005. The treaty was signed on the base at Building 86, which still exists today.

Seacord explained how on that September day more than 100 years ago a marine shouted the news of the treaty signing from a window, which prompted a cannon to be fired on the base.

This in turn resulted in a chorus of church bells ringing out to alert residents of the long awaited and positive news.

In the ceremony this Sept. 5, a small group gathered at the central Market Square area. Suzanne Moulton and her friend sounded tiny silver bells as two nearby churches tolled their bells for three minutes. Although she was not near any of the four cherry trees, the legal assistant was enthusiastic about their inclusion in the festivities.

"I love the cherry trees being incorporated in the bell-ringing ceremony as a reminder of the original gift of cherry trees by Japan planted along the Potomac in part as gratitude for America's role in helping to bring about the negotiations of a successful treaty to the Russo-Japanese War," the local resident explained. "It kind of brings it home to the city of Portsmouth and how citizens can make a difference."

Cheryl Hunt was also among a small crowd and with her two young daughters sounded their bells and listened to Mayor Eric Spear read out Gov. John Lynch's proclamation.

"I think it is a significant part of history and it is nice to be remembered and we are here in Portsmouth," the mother and navy wife explained.

"I think treaty day Sept. 5 is so timely because we played host to two countries, it was an international stage and it was a big deal, we were gracious hosts and we had a positive outcome in the event" Spear said.

Doleac and Seacord remain committed to their pledge to have more trees planted throughout the state and encourage more residents to become involved.

"What we want to do is we want to encourage this bell-ringing beyond Portsmouth," Doleac said. "The future is here in the small bells, everyone rings a bell."

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