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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Blossoms of Peace

Feb. 17, 2016

Masaaki Takaoka spent more than 30 years developing a new variety of cherry tree to mourn soldiers who died in battle during World War Two. Today, his son is continuing his legacy. Cherry blossoms herald the arrival of spring in Japan, and they hold a special place in the hearts of Japanese people.

Young cherry trees from Japan were planted at one cemetery in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, during a memorial ceremony in January. Japanese soldiers and others who died during World War Two are buried there.

The trees are known as "Yoko," or "bright sunlight." The flowers are a beautiful shade of pink when in full bloom.

"Look, buds are coming out. They are going to bloom, perhaps in 2 or 3 days,” says Masaaki's son, Terumi Takaoka, said at the tree-planting ceremony.

The 73-year-old donates young Yoko trees to many places every year. But this is the first time he has sent them to Myanmar.

The elder Takaoka decided to develop the cherry variety out of a strong sense of regret.

Masaaki taught agriculture at a military training school in western Japan's Ehime Prefecture during the war. Before his students left for the front, he said Japan would never be defeated.

He told them to come back to see the cherry trees on the school ground. But many students never came home. They died in battle across Asia and the Pacific.

After the war, Masaaki wanted to mourn them. He decided to create a new cherry variety that could grow and thrive in different climates. But it was a difficult task that wound up taking 30 years.

"The family was against the idea because we faced tough financial conditions. We complained a lot. We asked dad, why cherry trees?” Terumi Takaoka recalls. “He told me tearfully that he had to keep doing this to deal with the pain of losing his students."

Three decades of trial and error with over 200 different species followed. Masaaki finally found a combination that worked. Masaaki started donating them and continued until he died at age 92 in 2001.

Masaaki's devotion to improving the cherry variety is the theme of a recent film called "Yoko the Cherry Blossom."

About 7,000 of the trees have been planted in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, in front of the Japanese embassy and in school gardens.

Terumi has taken over his father's mission of working for a world without war. Takaoka's family has donated about 50,000 Yoko trees abroad and they now blossom in more than 23 countries and regions.

Myanmar was a British colony at the beginning of World War Two. The country was known as Burma when Japanese forces invaded in 1942.

It was the scene of fierce fighting. Many soldiers died in battle, from hunger, or from disease.

Yutaka Takasuka served as a medic on the battlefront. He can never forget what he saw there. He witnessed many of his countrymen take their last breath.

Takasuka is emotional about the thought of Yoko trees blossoming where he once served.

"Cherry blossoms are special. What we remembered most on the battlefield were cherry blossoms in bloom back in our hometown. I hope Yoko cherries growing in Burma will help ties between the country and Japan to develop. The remains of many Japanese are still there,” Takasuka says. “I’d appreciate it if cherry blossoms give even a little solace to their souls."

Seven young trees were planted in sunny places in the cemetery in Yangon.

"My father would often talk about a world without war. He said we must realize it at all costs. He wanted his cherry trees to help promote that cause,” Terumi says. “I hope people will cultivate the cherry blossoms and spread peace throughout the globe."

Terumi is growing more trees back in Ehime Prefecture. He hopes they will also blossom in Asian countries -- along with a desire by all people for a peaceful world.


Yuka Oonishi from NHK Matsuyama joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So the cherry trees were planted just a month ago in Myanmar. How are they doing?

Oonishi: Very well, actually. People in Myanmar are looking forward to seeing the trees because that's something they've never seen firsthand. I received this picture from Myanmar on Tuesday. The leaves are budding, but the trees are still too young. So people in Myanmar will have to wait a few years to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

Beppu: We've just seen in the story that it took 30 years to develop a new variety of cherry tree. I assume it takes a lot of investment. But how did he make this project become true?

Oonishi: Cherry trees bloom naturally in areas where the temperature changes with the seasons. It took time and money for Takaoka to create a new variety that could grow and blossom in different climates -- the intense cold of Siberia and the severe heat of tropical countries. The elder Takaoka used most of the money he made in his salt-manufacturing business to develop the new variety. Before his students went off to war, he told them that Japan would never be defeated. He used to say, "See you under the cherry trees." It was apparently difficult to say "come back safely" at that time. Family members say that after the war Takaoka expressed his regret about sending out young students to war.

Shibuya: So Yuka, tell us, how will the Takaoka family's mission continue?

Oonishi: Terumi is getting old. As we heard in the report, honoring his dad's legacy is becoming more of a physical burden for him. So the family established an organization in July 2015 to continue the elder Takaoka's mission. The group will work with governments in other countries to plant trees. They hope the trees will continue to serve as a symbol of peace.