Taipei, April 14 (CNA) Hundreds of people joined former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in planting cherry trees in Tainan Saturday in a gesture to thank Taiwan for its assistance following a massive earthquake and tsunami that battered Japan last year.
Mori, leading a group of 170 Japanese nationals, joined local officials in planting the first batch of 200 cherry trees at the Yoichi Hatta Memorial Park at an event dubbed "Kizuna," a Japanese word meaning "bond," to mark the close ties between Japan and Taiwan.
The park is named after an engineer who built a canal that helped irrigate southern Taiwan in the early 1900s.
Mori and Tainan Mayor Lai Ching-te plowed the soil before planting young trees that were grown by combining a tree species native to Japan and another indigenous to Taiwan, which the event initiator said symbolized the inseparable bond between the two countries.
Mori said he had planned a trip to Taiwan in May to mark the anniversary of Hatta's death but decided to squeeze in another visit after hearing about the tree-planting event to personally express Japan's gratitude to Taiwan for its 20 billion yen (US$247 million) in post-disaster donations.
"Taiwan and Japan have been close friends, and hopefully we can be even closer through this event," said Mori, who also unveiled a monument nearby and wrote "kizuna" and the Japanese word for "cherry blossoms" on it.
The views were echoed by Lai, who said the planting of Japan's national flower -- the cherry blossom -- had furthered the friendship between Taiwan and Japan.
Lai also expressed his hope that future cooperation could extend from trade into maintaining security in the Asia Pacific region.
Yang Ming-feng, chief of a local agriculture and water development agency, said the agency would work to turn the tree-planting site into one of Taiwan's largest cherry blossom parks.
The initiator of the event, a Japanese sports association, had said previously that it planned to plant a total of 5,000 cherry trees in several stages to strengthen exchanges with Taiwan.
Last year, the association arranged a 150-kilometer swim by six Japanese nationals from Japan's Yonaguni Island to Taiwan to thank the country for its relief assistance.
An earthquake and ensuing tsunami hit northeastern Japan in March 2011, leaving nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and triggering a nuclear power plant meltdown that forced the evacuation of 100,000 people.
(By Yang Sz-ruei and Scully Hsiao)