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Landscaping America: Occidental College Student Research


Sierra Madre Elementary School Japanese Garden

Like the Theodore Roosevelt garden, the Japanese garden at the Sierra Madre Elementary School has had several lives that reveal much about the history of Japanese Americans in and around Los Angeles.

By Rosalie Miletich: This garden is located at the Sierra Madre Elementary School, at 160 North Canon Avenue. The garden is not open for public viewing, so if you would like to arrange a visit, please call in advance. If you are on campus, stop by the visitor's office first for assistance. There is no entrance fee. You can contact the school at 626.836.2947

The following information was given by Ms. Helen Pontarelli, a sixth grade teacher at Sierra Madre Elementary School who was kind enough to speak to us about the history of the garden.

The original Japanese garden was built in 1931 by the parents of Japanese American students. However, it was vandalized and abandoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The sixth grade class of 1995 read about Sierra Madre history and discovered an article in the Los Angeles Times documenting a garden at their school. Upon this discovery, they decided to restore it, and underwent massive fundraising and labor to do so. The students held car washes, bake sales, wrote letters, and sold origami cranes to fund the reconstruction. They also performed physical labor in digging the bridge out of the mud and excavated the garden.

A Japanese-American community member, Mr. Lew Watanabe, became integral to the project. As a gardener who headed his own landscaping business, Mr. Watanabe designed the new garden and led the reconstruction. Through sales and donations, students were able to raise enough money to rebuild the garden. On Sunday, February 4th, 1995, the Japanese Garden was officially dedicated. The ceremony included 17 members of the class of 1931 and their teacher. The dedication ceremony included taiko drumming, dancing, and a karate demonstration.

This garden, named "The Garden of Goodwill", is a fascinating space in that its different stages of construction, vandalization, and reconstruction coincide with fluctuations in the relationship between Japan and America. The garden is larger than itself; it has become a project of transnational interaction.

Because this garden does not have monetary profit as its end, it owes its existence to community efforts, changes in the international political climate, and cohesiveness.
In contrast to other Japanese-style gardens, especially those at restaurants, spas, or hotels, it does not participate in any claims of exoticism or cultural essentialization. Specifically, there are no claims of its Japanese authenticity, tranquility, or exotic nature. Instead, it has become a site of community education.
The history of this garden has followed the trajectory of pro-Japanese and anti-Japanese sentiment within America. With its creation in 1931 and its subsequent vandalization and abandonment after Pearl Harbor, this garden became a site where sentiments on a national level were played out.

The sudden increase in distrust and racism towards Japanese-Americans developed further into the destruction of Japanese-style gardens, such as the one at this school.

After World War II, the garden was left in disrepair, most likely due to the ignorance of its former existence. In 1995, the garden became a site for the expression of changes in American culture. As Kendall Brown states in his article "Territories of Play", Japanese-American gardeners and landscapers became aware of their works as metonyms for larger cultural implications: "Aware of both the hostility facing them and of the popularity of Japanese-style gardens, Japanese immigrants built gardens as a way of smoothing the path of acceptance in American society by emphasizing the most attractive manifestations of their culture". While Brown's own interpretation of what is "most attractive" about Japanese-American culture is subjective, the mindset of the parents in 1931 must have followed this line of thinking. Even in the 1990s, Lew Watanabe must have been aware of the implications of reconciliation that the reconstruction of the garden allowed. With this "Garden of Goodwill", we see the cultural communication implied and stated in the site of the Japanese-style garden in California.

To see more images of the garden, click on "View Original Item" below. Once there, click on "View Collection."

Ayako Williams
Richard Kawada
May Liao
Rosalie Miletich

Based on this original

The Sierra Madre Elementary School Japanese Garden
uploaded by rmiletich
This collection contains pictures of the different elements of the Japanese garden at the Sierra Madre Elementary School. These include stone lanterns, an arced bridge, a koi pond, a basin … More »

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