The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC, took time to remember what Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki calls Japan’s “3/11”.

“Everything started on what I call 3/11 — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident — and we are still struggling,” he told a crowd in front of the Washington Monument on Thursday evening. The crowd, many carrying Japanese flags and signs of support, then walked to the Cherry Blossom trees along the tidal basin in a somber vigil, with American Red Cross donation bins stationed along the way.

The official death toll in Japan now stands at 10,668. 16,574 are listed as missing.

Donations collected during the two week Cherry Blossom Festival will go to the National Cherry Blossom Festival Red Cross Online Donation Site, which benefits the Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami fund.

The famous Cherry Blossom trees were a gift from Japan 99 years ago, to celebrate and enhance the growing friendship between Japan and the US. The first two were planted along the tidal basin in 1912 by First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador at the time, Viscountess Chinda. These two trees still stand and are marked by a large plaque.

The first Cherry Blossom festival was held in 1935, eventually becoming an annual event. This year’s festival is two weeks long and began yesterday. Next year’s centennial celebration will be a five week affair starting on March 20, 2012.