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Cherry blossoms remind us of history and life’s beautiful, complex moments

Cherry blossoms in Portland, Oregon herald the coming of spring. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. – Rays of sun interrupted the chill of winds only just starting to lose the sharpness of winter when I visited the cherry blossoms here not long ago.

Petals in varying shades of white and pink occasionally drift to sprinkle the grass, sidewalks and people below with a dusting of color. Along crowded pathways weaving between the trees, a complex history is engraved in stones. 

Pink and white blossoms contrast against the bright blue Oregon sky. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

These excerpts of my day looking for cherry blossoms are what I will remember as the start of springtime this year. 

In the heart of Portland’s waterfront, where the city’s concrete sidewalks merge with the ebb and flow of the Willamette River, I was reminded of the significance of moments when humans find meaning in nature. 

People gather under the cherry trees. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Drawing people from throughout the area, the cherry trees bring different forms of significance to their viewers. Their fragile flowers, like pale stars against the afternoon sky, seem to make the walkways pause for a moment. 

(Annamika Konkola/YJI)

The world does not stop completely. A runner sprints through the slowing crowds. But the pace of walking stagnates as people look upward. 

When I first focused my gaze on the space directly between the trees, there was nothing but blue. The second time, a small bird darted overhead.

In the sky newly-framed by cherry blossom branches, I wonder what others find. 

A memory? Tranquil blankness? A connection to the past? The flowers also serve as a bridge to pieces of Oregon’s history. 

These trees, brought to Portland in 1990, were planted as a symbolic gesture of cultural recognition and reconciliation. Gifted to the city by Japan, the cherry trees were part of the dedication ceremony for the Japanese American Historical Plaza, a project initiated by the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. 

As visitors stroll through the plaza, through the blossoms and the brush of the wind, they walk among the stories of those who once navigated these same streets – their dreams, their struggles, their triumphs.

Cherry trees in bloom along the Portland, Oregon waterfront. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Today, the plaza containing these one hundred carefully-spaced cherry trees serves as a memorial to the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were unjustly interned during World War II. It is meant to be a permanent reminder of the importance of the U.S. Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and a determined pursuit of liberty, equality, and justice.

On gray sculptured stones throughout the plaza, I read excerpts of lives and reflections – some hopeful, some solemn. I sensed the weight of the stories etched into the stones.

Oregon is directly connected to this history. Approximately 4,000 Oregonians were interned.

Cherry blossoms overhead. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

With this knowledge, I feel I cannot look at these cherry blossoms without also trying to recall the fragments of history I have learned: I think of the lives of immigrants who arrived on Western shores in the late 19th century, often met with discrimination and prejudice.

The plaza acknowledges the generations that followed, including the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants who faced internment camps.

The amount of fragmented stories in the plaza seems dizzying. 

Looking at the cherry blossoms, my gaze drifted as a family’s small dog became tangled on the leg of a park bench. As I watched them unknot her leash, a small white petal fell onto her wagging tail before being shaken to the ground. There was something about that moment that felt familiar yet wholly theirs, not mine. 

The delicate, gorgeous blooms are in the suburbs, too. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Hearing their bubbling laughter as they observed their dog’s confusion, I imagined happiness as being in this park. 

I thought of all the times I have unraveled my own dog from park benches in her excitement to explore, but also thought of that petal – blown away in the wind toward the river below – and how it will never again find its way to the branch it blossomed from.

For their brief existence, these flowers remind us to notice the present and appreciate the people we share the moment with before it slips away. Just as petals can fall suddenly in the slightest breeze, I become aware of how quickly a moment can disappear.

As I stood beneath their branches, I found myself hoping to embrace the cherry blossoms’ duality as symbols of history’s weight and life’s interconnected joys.

Annamika Konkola is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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