Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies


A Cultural History of Planting Memorial Trees
in Modern Japan:
With a Focus on General Grant in 1879


(The Graduate University for Advanced Studies,
School of Cultural and Social Studies, Department of Japanese Studies)

Key words:

Japanese Modernization, Westernization, Planting trees, Worship of Trees, Memorial Ceremony, Park, Nation-States, General Grant, Tsuda Sen, Shibusawa Eiichi, Honda Seiroku

Planting memorial trees is today a common practice. The act of planting such trees indeed contributed to the promotion of Japanese policies of modernization in the Meiji era, no less than erecting monuments or memorial statues.

Two facts support this hypothesis. First, there are texts encouraging the planting of memorial trees, some written by Honda Seiroku, professor of the Imperial University of Tokyo, who laid the groundwork for modern forestry, and others issued by such government offices such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce and Forestry. Second, the media came to recognize the news value of memorial planting and reported on it. Under these circumstances, memorial trees were planted widely as rites of national significance in modern Japan.

The event that I examine here is the ceremony commemorating General Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to Japan as a state guest in 1879. Materials indicate that General Grant planted memorial trees at three different parks, all of which were former landholdings of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, transformed now into modern Japan’s first public parks by decree in 1873.

An analysis of the characteristics and historical changes of these park spaces and the types of memorial trees chosen for planting suggests that the intention was to reflect the policy of Westernization in Japan, with its emphasis on breaking with the past and obtaining new knowledge. At the same time, the root of these ritual practices can be seen in the worship of trees which the government otherwise rejected. There is evidence here that an admixture of old and new ideas regarding nature was one source powering this particular aspect of the promotion of modernization in Japan.