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  • William Bourne

DIVERSITY THROUGH THE PRISM OF CHERRY BLOSSOM

The 1st of February is traditionally the start of spring in Japan and, shortly after, plum trees blossom followed by the famous cherries.  The latter roll in a soft pink tide from Kyushu in the south to Hokkaido in the north, charted carefully on television.  And, of course, under the flowering blossom the Japanese picnic, drink and for a day forget the cares of office or family. The blossom have come to mind after an excellent book I have been reading on holiday: ‘Cherry’ Ingram by Naoko Abe*.  It tells the story of how the variety of cherry trees carefully cultivated for centuries in temples and daimyo gardens has been overwhelmed by a single pale pink cultivar, Somei-Yoshino.  If you see cherry blossom in the streets of Japan, it is highly likely to be this tree.  It flowers for a short time and – for trees in a particular location – at a uniform time.  That is why we get the pale pink clouds above and carpets below seen in tourist pictures. The book tells the story of how an Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, obsessed by cherries, in the 1920s and 1930s had scions (ie. twigs which he rooted) sent from all over the world but principally from Japan, which he carefully propagated at his home in Kent.  Before the days of air transport, they had to go by ship and by train, and keeping the scions alive over 40 or more days was a challenge.  North-about via Vancouver was better than south-about and the equator, because the cold stopped them sprouting, and he finally achieved success by rooting them for travel purposes in a common potato.  Despite manifold problems he succeeded in growing 129 different kinds of cherry trees.   Meanwhile, as Somei-Yoshino took over in Japan, Ingram sent some cherry varieties back to fellow cherry obsessives there to try and resist its dominance.  This effort was overwhelmed by the Second World War, when cherry blossom gained a more sinister association: with the spirit of sacrifice made by so many young Japanese men in the cause of their Emperor.  Somei-Yoshino, with its beauty and short flowering period had the perfect imagery for the military seeking to encourage them, which is why kamikaze planes had them painted on their fuselages.  That, and the desperate circumstances surrounding any war, is why most Japanese cherries outside the wild today are still the pale pink of Somei-Yoshino.  The spectacle is greater but only lasts a few days, whereas Ingram’s cherries in England would be flowering from February until May in colours ranging from pale green to purple.  I suppose it all comes back to a common tension in the world of business:  the choice between the benefits of concentration and single-mindedness, and incorporating a level of diversification and thereby diluting it.  Should electric car batteries be mandated to be the same size so that instead of recharging them drivers simply replace them Formula 1 style?  Wouldn’t it be easier if all electric plugs around the world were the same shape and voltage? It won’t surprise regular readers that I stand firmly on the side of diversity and what I call the Galapagos principle: allowing different plants and animals to develop in their different ways and not being too prescriptive.  I accept that there are some drawbacks to this approach but I think they are outweighed by the advantages.   The other lesson I draw from cherries is the danger of being sucked into a unilateral course of action by imagery and propaganda.  That may in turn be the strongest argument for diversity, whether cherries or governance structures. 'Cherry' Ingram by Naoke Abe, Chatto & Windus, 2019