WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Americans braved the cold in the US capital late Thursday in a show of support for quake-hit Japan ahead of an annual celebration of cherry trees donated to the city almost 100 years ago.
Ahead of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, celebrating the blooming of the pink-flowered trees throughout the city, officials hailed Japanese "resilience" and the US-Japanese friendship at a vigil held on the monument-lined Mall.
The event also collected donations for the Red Cross to help victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country earlier this month, killing more than 10,000 people and unleashing a nuclear crisis.
"It's such a cold evening, but the very fact that you are here today really moves my heart. It's very special," said Ichiro Fujisaki, the Japanese ambassador to the United States.
"Everything started on what I call 3-11... This is a very tough fight but the consolation is that people around the world are trying to be with us, and especially Americans," he said, on a podium decked with Japanese and US flags.
Families and tourists, as well as local US and Japanese officials, observed a minute of silence at the event, entitled "Stand with Japan."
"The blossoms will epitomize the story of the resiliency of the people of Japan," Washington, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said.
Yayoi Nagayama, 25, came to New York for a vacation on March 3, but feared for friends and family back home in Fukushima, the site of a damaged nuclear power plant now spewing radiation.
"I'm very nervous about my hometown. I have no idea what I can do for my friends and family," she told AFP, adding that she would be returning to Japan next month.
American Chris Hudler, 31, who taught English in another hard-hit area from 2007 to 2009, said he had come to "show support."
"I have a lot of friends, students affected by this earthquake," he added.
The event concluded with a march around the Tidal Basin, the main area of the festival, which is expected to attract a million visitors in the next two weeks.
The annual event commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington.