The Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix, AZ

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The Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix, AZ, also called Ro Ho En, is a 3.5 acre Japanese-style stroll garden with a 5/8 acre koi pond with over 300 koi and a tea house/garden created in a series of two phases over the course of several years. The construction of the garden was made possible by city-wide bonds and private donations, totaling $4.8 million. Ro Ho En is located in downtown Phoenix as a part of the Margaret T. Hance Park on 1125 N. 3rd Avenue. The garden’s website is available at http://www.japanesefriendshipgarden.org/. Plans to create a dry rock garden are underway for the garden’s third phase. Ro Ho En contains more than fifty types of flora, with Japanese and local Phoenix varieties interspersed to ensure that the garden can endure desert temperatures and climate. The 1,500 tons of rocks were chosen from various locations in Arizona, creating the shores of the pond, the waterfalls, and the walking paths throughout the garden. In addition, there are several stone lanterns, a massive stone pagoda, and several stone and wooden bridges that span different bodies of water. The mission of Ro Ho En, among other things is “to encourage the citizens of Phoenix, Himeji and people from around the world to enjoy the experience of an authentic Japanese stroll garden…and to promote the education, understanding, and appreciation of the Japanese culture and its rich history and traditions.” The design of the garden was a collaborative effort by a group of over fifty Japanese landscape architects from Himeji, Japan.
The garden is named Ro Ho En to symbolize the “friendship” between the sister cities of Phoenix and Himeji. “Ro” is the Japanese kanji character for “Heron,” a symbol of Himeji. “Ho” is the Japanese kanji character for the city of Phoenix’s bird. “En” is the character for garden. A substantive theme for the garden is the nature of this international relationship, which resulted in the creation of this garden. It is through this relationship with Himeji that the Phoenix garden grounds its claims to authenticity; because there were Japanese people working in conjunction with Americans, this garden, “must” be authentic. This friendship, interestingly, is not reciprocal; Himeji is yet to construct a “cactus garden” with Phoenix plant-life in their city. While the love for Japan’s culture is clearly established in Phoenix, Himeji does not return such an affinity to Arizona style gardening.
Claims to “authenticity” are rampant throughout the guided tour of the garden, the literature, and the mission statement. Several instances in the experience of the garden question the “authenticity” and claims to it being a “real” Japanese garden rather than a Japanese-style garden, if that. This garden resembled more closely a diorama, or a “three-dimensional replicated scene in which figures, stuffed wildlife, or other objects are arranged in a thematic setting against a painted or decorated background.” Imposing itself onto the barren landscape of the Arizona desert, this garden seems fabricated, homogenized, and illusory. The Ro Ho En Executive Director was suited in a Japanese-style yukata, bearing the “costume” of a Japanese person. The docents are trained to use Japanese words to explain Zen Buddhism, Japanese-style architecture, and Japanese plants, but when asked to specify the iconography on a Buddhist pagoda, for example, the docent was not able to offer information beyond the obvious and superficial. There seemed to be little attention to specificity throughout the guided tour. This tour, however, did succeed in satiating the hunger of the Japanophile; the “cultural odor,” a term coined by Koichi Iwabuchi, of the garden is evolved into a “‘fragrance’—a socially and culturally acceptable smell…not determined simply by the consumer’s perception that something is ‘made in Japan’” (Iwabuchi, 27). By removing any trace of Japan’s history or culture while still maintaining its exotic and foreign features, the Ro Ho En creates a space of cultural consumption, a garden splashed on a the blank canvas of a desert landscape with all of the muted colors of what may or may not be Japanese.
Offering the “total” experience of Japanese culture, the garden weaves into itself a history of appropriation and collecting; James Clifford, author of “On Collecting Art and Culture,” writes that “artifacts contextualized ethnographically were valued because they served as objective ‘witnesses’ to the total multidimensional life of a culture” (Clifford, 150). Similarly at Ro Ho En, visitors are convinced of the garden as a metonym for the whole of Japan’s culture and history. This is underscored by the various Japanese cultural events that occur at the garden on a weekly basis. These include monthly tea ceremonies, Daiko drum performances, Aikido classes, and Japanese gardening/pruning classes. By making the garden the locale for all things Japanese, the garden succeeds in falsely establishing itself as the real Japan, a chance for visitors to consume and experience it as if they were in Himeji. These Japanese cultural events are taken out of time and context, and such a collection of experiences “contains what ‘deserves’ to be kept, remembered, and treasured” (Clifford, 152).
While attempting to give local Phoenix residents and tourists the chance to experience Japan through the scope of creating a Japanese garden, the claims to authenticity and an experience of real Japanese culture are egregious and unfounded. Ro Ho En should be viewed solely as a garden within the context of the United States landscape and at most be considered a garden that selects aspects of Japanese-style gardening as a theme of the garden. Japan is not and should not be the central basis for understanding this garden’s history or context.

References
Clifford, James. On Collecting Art and Culture: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. MIT Press, 1990.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Duke University Press, 2002.

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jessicasimes — Last modified Jun 28 2021 1:49 a.m.


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