Japan's favourite tree
THE mighty, shimmering Ginkgo towered over the shrine steps and, as legend has it, had stood witness to history being made in Japan for over 800 years. When it thudded to the ground in March, it was as if the nation shook. Visitors flocked to the ancient capital of Kamakura to pay their respects and take photos. "Rest in peace, old one. Your tale is now done," sighed the writer of a blog , with tender poignancy.
But this is Japan, whose age-old belief in nature is at least evenly matched by an unyielding faith in technology. Under orders from the prefectural government, scientists set about replanting the tree and cloning it. That is not as tricky as it sounds. The cloning of trees by grafting a cutting onto a living root is hardly modern science. But in Japan's Shinto faith there are spiritual complications because this tree is, in essence, divine—it is, says Shigeho Yoshida, chief priest of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine where the Ginkgo stood, "a holy tree".
In the Shinto faith, he patiently explains, nature is to gods and man what God is to nature and man in Western religions. So when scientists say they are cloning the tree's gene, he believes they are really propagating a holy spirit. That is a sacred task. Only when he was assured that this was natural science, not the laboratory sort, did he feel comfortable enough to give his blessing.
But it is still a touchy issue. The Kanagawa prefecture has not only sought to revive the tree in the shrine's grounds. It wants to plant offshoots elsewhere, possibly as a tourist attraction. Mr Yoshida is a bit scandalised. What's more, he felt the old Ginkgo may have been trying to send a message by tumbling down. "So many people came, called and sent e-mails offering their condolences. Perhaps the tree fell to draw everyone's attention away from their focus on materialism and money." For all the materialism, trees are still touchingly revered in Japan. It is cherry-blossom season, a time of all-night sake-drinking parties under the sakura. Even salarymen take photos of the blossom to send to their girlfriends by mobile phone.
But the Ginkgo is special. The story goes that in the 13th century, an assassin hid behind it before severing the head of his uncle, the last shogun of the Minamoto line. Centuries of bloodshed followed. Mr Yoshida says the tree's demise has drawn 20,000 people to the shrine. He hopes more will come if it revives. With all the press coverage, that could give Japan, a year hence, a taste of its own Easter story. Just don't mention the word "resurrection", which is part of neither Shintoism, nor Buddhism, the country's other religion. Mr Yoshida can barely bring himself even to whisper the word.
From the print edition: Asia