By Masashi Sato
Around October or November, I imagine many students at Komaba campus begin to wonder, “What kind of plant is releasing this unpleasant smell, and why would a university want to plant such trees on the main street of an university?” I myself had the same question, so I decided to take time to look into the unlikable plant and share it with our reader.
To begin with, here is the basic information; the plant is called gingko (commonly known as ichou or ginnan in Japan) and is a deciduous tree, which can grow up to about 40 meters tall. One of gingko’s unique characteristics is the shape of its leaves, and it resembles a fan or foot of a duck. Another known unique characteristic is the smell of its fruit. Many sources describe the odor as similar to that of a vomit or ‘rancid butter.’
So why did the university decide to plant so many gingko trees alongside the main street on Komaba campus? There seems to be two main reasons. The first reason is to make the campus a better environment for students. Since gingko is a deciduous tree, its leaves fall off during autumn, becoming “naked” during the cold winter. This allows sunlight to shine on the street, enabling students to feel a little warmer during cold winter days. On the other hand, gingko trees full of leaves will block sunlight during hot summer days, providing shade for those walking to and from classes.
Another reason is rather simple, and that is because gingko is the symbol of the university. The gingko remained as a symbol to represent University of Tokyo even when the university redesigned the symbol after becoming a national university corporation in 2004. The new symbol consists of two gingko leaves that are colored in yellow and light blue. They kept the gingko design to “show determination that even if the University of Tokyo face big changes, they will lead college education and academic research with their long history and tradition, according to the university website (translated by author).”
Besides relationship between the university and gingko, I also found out about practical use for the infamous gingko fruit despite its stench. According to University of Maryland Medical Center, although it cannot be eaten raw, the nut within gingko fruit can be used as an herbal supplement to treat cold, and the leaves contain memory-boosting substance.
Although researchers have discovered what type of chemical is causing the gingko fruit to release its stench, they have not found an explanation for “why” it smells so badly. Perhaps it is the smell of various utilities and long history all mixed together.
Masashi is a first-year student at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo.