PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Along the banks of the Willamette River in downtown Portland, 100 cherry trees erupt with color every spring. They are a beautiful and delicate gift from the Japanese Grain Importers Association 31 years ago.

And if you blink you might miss them.

“They’re vulnerable to the weather, the rain, the wind,” said Lynn Fuchigami Parks, the Executive Director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “They only stay in bloom for a very short while.”

In Japan, spring is marked by the sakura — cherry blossom trees that bloom every year across the island nation. About 1 million people flock to see the flowers in hubs like Tokyo, Okinawa, Sapporo as well as in sister cities like Portland.

People flock to the Waterfront Park as the cherry blossoms bloom. March 21, 2020 (KOIN)

Cherry blossoms symbolize the spring, a time of renewal, the fleeting nature of life.

A 1000-year-old custom known as “hanami” — that is, “flower viewing” — brings people together to do just that, to sit beneath the trees and take it all in.

Both tourists and Portlanders flock to the Japanese American historical plaza to do the same. But this place also serves as a reminder of past struggle and tragedy.

“Part of this history that is commemorated here is this stone and it’s engraved with the names of the 10 permanent concentration camps that were located throughout the United States,” Fuchigami Parks said.

In 1942, roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to stay in these camps under tough conditions until World War 2 ended — even though many of them fought for the United States.

“We hope that when people come here and contemplate the beauty of these cherry blossoms that they also contemplate what this plaza stands for,” she said, “our freedom, our democracy is just as vulnerable to hate and racism.”

And by better understand the past we inch closer toward all the sakura symbolizes: hope in new beginnings and deeper appreciation for the here and now.