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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's cherry blossom time in Washington. And throughout the nation's capital, blooming cherry trees look like pale, pink clouds settling on our parks and streets. The oldest trees are a gift from Japan. There, the flowers are filled with symbolism.

Mr. JAMES ULAK (Senior Curator of Japanese Art, the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries): The cherry blossoms come on. They're heavy. They drop. And Japanese poets from early on took this as analogous to the ephemerality of life, and this blended with a strong Buddhist notion of transience, things are passing, nothing is permanent.

WERTHEIMER: James Ulak is senior curator of Japanese Art at the Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery. He showed us a folding screen from the 17th century in the Seasons exhibit - cherry blossoms in early spring.

Mr. ULAK: You see a rope that's probably attached to the trees and goes around, and it holds up these large brocades that hang around like curtains.

WERTHEIMER: The curtains block off the area for a blossom-viewing party. The Japanese people still have those picnics and parties under the cherry trees -of course, this year, the outings are likely to be different.

Mr. ULAK: I was recently in Japan two weeks ago, just before this terrible disaster. And I think that people who do take the moment to observe the customs will probably seek both relief from tension, and also think back about the inherent meaning of these blossoms, that life is short.

WERTHEIMER: And that Japan has lost a great deal.

James Ulak took us way downstairs, where the museum collections are stored, to see a few of the pictures of Matsushima Bay, just north of Sendai, the city hardest hit by the tsunami. The bay was one of the most beautiful places in Japan. Its views of blue water, craggy rocks and twisted pine trees have attracted visitors and artists for centuries.

Mr. ULAK: The poignancy, if you will, of the tsunami, in addition to the huge loss of life and everything else, was that this beautiful view - which so many, many, many people have relied on for centuries for inspiration - has been ravaged. To what degree, we're really not quite sure.

WERTHEIMER: We saw one of the museum's most important treasures: a huge pair of screens, stylized waves drawn in gold and silver, curling around islands and pine trees. It's almost 400 years old and very beautiful, but eerily evocative of that familiar aerial video of the tsunami - smooth, but with bits of foam, moving in all directions. It's known as "The Waves at Matsushima."

Mr. ULAK: I was looking through the extensive documentation and records we have on this painting, and back in the 1960s, a gentleman who was the curator of Japanese art who became the director, Harold Stern, made some notes on this. Something to the effect that, of course, anyone who has seen the real Matsushima Bay realizes that the water never gets like this.

WERTHEIMER: It's never this high and never this roiled...

Mr. ULAK: And never this stormy. And had he lived to see the events of several weeks ago, how sad it would be.

WERTHEIMER: The sea is placid, in a set of prints laid out for us to look at, of that same bay from the early 20th century.

This looks like a fishing village.

Mr. ULAK: This is a water color. Yeah, it's very interesting. It's - in the distance, you just see the islands.

WERTHEIMER: There's a figure sort of in the middle ground...

Mr. ULAK: Right. It looks like a woman...

WERTHEIMER: ...who seems to be walking on the seawall.

Mr. ULAK: ...walking on the seawall, carrying a parasol.

WERTHEIMER: We saw lots of pictures of the seawalls along this part of the coast that were just...

Mr. ULAK: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: ...as if they did not exist.

Mr. ULAK: Right.

WERTHEIMER: The wave rolled right over them. It's heartbreaking to think that this is all such a large part of Japan's vision of itself.

Mr. ULAK: I can't think of an analogy for what might be severely damaged here in the States by a similar natural catastrophe that would evoke this feeling. If the Grand Canyon collapsed, it has that feel to it. We are fortunate, and other museums are fortunate, to have this kind of a memory of the place. It will return. It will revive, but never in the same way. So the lesson of the cherry blossom is very much in evidence here.

WERTHEIMER: James Ulak is senior curator of Japanese art at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery. The galleries have shared some of these pictures with us. Check npr.org for reproductions and links.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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