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The Cultural Implications and Authenticity of Japanese-style Gardens of California

Japanese-style gardens in California evoke different feelings of sentiment within their viewers. For the Japanese-American, a Japanese-style garden may evoke a sense of pride for their earlier generations. For a businessman, it may look like a means of profit. And to a casual observer, it may represent the cultural ideals of Japan itself. Japanese-style gardens were created by different people for a variety of uses, and as a result uphold different functions. Japanese-style gardens of California therefore, reflect the dynamic, and ever-changing Japanophilic tendencies of their creators and users, who use these gardens as either a communal space, a medium through which to exploit Japanese aesthetics as a commodity, and/or a venue through which to appropriate certain aspects of Japanese culture on American observers. By analyzing these functions, a discussion of what constitutes cultural authenticity emerges, revealing the scope of American cultural perception and understanding of Japan.

In order to fully understand the ways in which garden functionalities affect cultural perceptions of authenticity, one must first understand just what constitutes a Japanese-style garden. One thing must first be made clear—Japanese-style gardens are not Japanese gardens. To quote James Rose, “a Japanese garden is a garden built in Japan…there’s no such thing as a garden where it’s people aren’t. that’s a translation, not a garden” (Brown, 8). A Japanese-style garden therefore, can never enjoy the same status that a Japanese garden built in Japan has. They can never be authentically Japanese, but they may strive to exude the same qualities and ideals of a true, authentic Japanese garden. These gardens therefore are authentic, not as Japanese gardens, but as Japanese-style gardens.

Japanese gardens were first built by Shinto priests in the seventh century to provide a space to communicate with the gods. Over time, gardens became objects of mimesis, functioning “to represent some other place or idea, natural or supernatural” (Hendry, 191). Objects within the garden came to represent certain aspects of nature and spirituality. For example, raked gravel came to represent the waves and ripples of water, and rocks came to represent the jagged, rugged outline of the mountainside. Regarding Japanese-style gardens, there exists a loose distinction of several types. This paper will identify and recognize only three types of Japanese gardens—the stroll garden, the Zen garden, and the tea garden.

The stroll garden is, as its name implies, meant to be walked through to fully appreciate its aesthetic beauty. These gardens often employ gently sloping hills, and small streams or ponds which transverse through much of the garden. The strolling garden functions simply as a space for appreciating nature. The Zen garden on the other hand, was born out of the ideals of art and religion to provide a “medium to express the harmony of the universe”, evoking concepts of Zen within the garden (Kuitert, 130). Zen gardens often use dry-landscape elements such as rocks and gravel in a minimalist style that is largely symbolic. Finally, tea gardens were built to invoke “calmness and subtle beauty of the natural world” to “soothe the spirit, remove worldly care, and prepare each guest for the tea ceremony” (Rogers, 16). Combinations and deviations from these three types can be found within the Japanese-style gardens of California.

Japanese-style Gardens as a Communal Space

Beginning in the late 1800’s, many Japanese emigrants made the long, arduous journey overseas to start a new life in America. They immigrated for different reasons as some sought economic prosperity that would enable them to live an easier life back home, while others sought to expand the empire of Japan in an act of colonization. Whatever the case, by the early 1900’s, there were more than 130,000 Japanese migrants living in Hawaii and the United States (Azuma, 29). As more and more Japanese found themselves living in America, a new community arose, one that was not quite native Japanese, yet not quite American. This new community was known as the “Japanese in America”, or zaibei doho, and it began to forge its own unique identity in the United States, breaking away from the pull of native Japan, yet failing to fully assimilate into the American identity (Azuma, 61). Within this new period of settlement, a need arose to retain the culture, morality, and racial consciousness reflective of Japan that the first generation, or Issei, could instill within the following generations. The Issei believed that establishing these values would motivate future generations to, “cooperate in a pursuit of a meaningful future for the racial collectivity” (Azuma, 122). Thus, implementing Japanese cultural values on the future generations of zaibei doho became a primary focus of Japanese-American communities. It was this need to provide a cultural communal space for the second generation, or Nissei, of zaibei doho that resulted in the construction of many Japanese-style gardens in California.

The James Irvine garden located in the urban center of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo is one such example of how a Japanese-style garden came to function as a cultural space built to foster racial identity and education within the Japanese-American community. As Kendall Brown stated in his essay entitled “Territories of Play”, Japanese-style gardens have played a vital role in nurturing immigrant communities, serving as “the most tangible aspect of cultural identity, at times stating Japaneseness and in other instances modifying that identity to represent Japanese Americans” (12). Therefore, in building this garden, the Japanese community sought to provide a space for cultural reflection that would enable future generations to identify with.

Besides the Japanese-American community, the garden sought to benefit the rest of the surrounding community as well. Constructed in 1979 by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the garden and accompanying cultural center was designed by a coalition of Japanese American gardeners, contractors, and nurserymen for the purpose of “presenting, perpetuating, transmitting and promoting Japanese and Japanese American arts and culture to diverse audiences.” (JACCC). In this way, the garden has served as “an important space of cultural production”, not only for Japanese-Americans, but for the rest of the surrounding community as well (Brown, 12). The garden remains part of a larger community center that seeks to educate visitors in many aspects of Japanese culture. In addition to the garden, the main office building offers classes in tea ceremony, Noh chanting, and flower arrangement in an effort to educate visitors, rather than simply offering them a display of Japanese culture (JACCC).

Two other gardens in California also reflect the concept of using Japanese-style gardens as communal spaces, but through time have evolved dynamic functionalities. They are the Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School garden and the Sierra Madre Elementary School garden. Both gardens reflect, interestingly enough, similar processes of change and function as communal spaces. They were both built during the 1930’s and, like the James Irvine garden (as mentioned before), function as spaces of cultural production for the Japanese-American community. However, at the outbreak of World War II, anti-Japanese sentiments increased, resulting in the destruction and abandonment of these and many other Japanese-style gardens in America. Both the Theodore Roosevelt garden and the Sierra Madre garden were re-built many years following World War II out of student and community interest. In the case of the Sierra Madre garden, it was re-built as the “Garden of Goodwill”, and reflected new notions of cultural acceptance and tolerance that permeated out only after World War II ended. Likewise, the Theodore Roosevelt garden was also reconstructed and renamed into the “Garden of Peace”, in order to commemorate the racial tensions experienced by Japanese-Americans living during the war (rmiletich, 1; pmcenny, 1).

In the case of these two gardens, the original purpose intended for both was simply to provide a communal space for Japanese-Americans. However, in analyzing their transformations before, during, and after the war, it becomes clear that their functions delve far beyond that. Brown argued that Japanese-style gardens can be interpreted as “cultural ambassadors”, which he defines as ”symbols for the most attractive aspects of the nation” (12). This interpretation of the gardens becomes apparent, as both evolved to include names reflective of cultural understanding and acceptance. The name “Garden of Goodwill” implies sentiments of friendship and positive relations, while the name “Garden of Peace” implies a strive to end universal tension and conflict. In this way, members of the Japanese-American community used these gardens “as a way of smoothing the path of acceptance in American society” and “as a means of securing a living and even assimilating into their new country” (Brown, 12-13). For the Japanese immigrants that moved to America, the gardens that they built served to ease their cultural transition between Japan and the United States. In doing so, it strengthened their new identities as Japanese-Americans.

Japanese-style Gardens and Cultural Exploitation

Besides functioning as a communal space, Japanese-style gardens have also functioned as venues through which cultural exploitation is possible. The concept of Zen is one example of cultural exploitation that has permeated through much of Western media and culture in recent years. Historically, Zen has been used as a medium through which to represent Japanese culture. After the post-war period in Japan where economic growth was the primary focus, a shift towards reviving culture as the “distinctive marker of national identity” became prominent in Japan’s policy-making rhetoric (Cox, 198). By reviving certain aspects of the past and appropriating them as important features of Japanese culture, traditionalist practices such as the Zen arts came to figure heavily into Japan’s national identity. As Japanese cultural exports gained more and more prominence on the transnational stage, the Zen arts enjoyed widespread cultural circulation outside of Japan. Today, the Zen arts permeate throughout the media, “visible everywhere, from mainstream cinema to television commercials” (Cox, 223). Besides the popular media, the Zen arts have also factored into the commercial aspect of some Japanese-style gardens in California.

One such garden is the New Otani garden located at the New Otani Hotel in Los Angeles. It is an example of how a Japanese-style garden can be used to exploit a Japanese aesthetic. Located on the roof top of the hotel, the New Otani garden is promoted as a site of respite and relaxation, designed to “release [one] from the realities of work and worry” (New Otani 1). The garden is framed not as a cultural space, but as something more akin to a day-spa. On the garden’s website, it references how the “seven principles of Zen” were used to influence the garden’s design (New Otani 1), even though interestingly enough, the garden retains characteristics of Japanese Zen gardens, stroll gardens, and tea gardens. In this way, the garden uses the Zen arts as a way to attract visitors to the garden, even though it is not a Zen garden. In doing so, the garden reflects the “exploitation of what is indeed an aesthetic canon for largely commercial ends” (Cox, 223). Emphasizing the calming, peaceful aspects of Zen, the garden exploits this ideal to resonate within the prospective visitor.

Another example of cultural exploitation employed by a garden is found in the Japanese-style garden of the Descanso gardens in Los Angeles. Unlike the New Otani garden as mentioned before, the Descanso garden seeks to exploit broader themes of Japanese culture rather than just the Zen arts. Blending elements of stroll gardens, Zen garden, and tea gardens (much like the New Otani garden), the Descanso garden conveys many different aspects of Japanese culture. Two elements of the garden however, reveal leanings towards cultural exploitation. The first element is the presence of a Snapple machine within the teahouse (nfrancis, 1). In this way, the garden uses the cultural surroundings and context of a Japanese tea ceremony to sell something which is not all related to Japanese-style gardens at all. The second element is the presence of a gift shop within the garden (nfrancis 1). As traditional Japanese gardens do not usually feature gift shops, the presence of one at the Descanso gardens reveals the creator’s intent of exploiting Japanese culture for profit. From these examples, it becomes evident that Japanese-style gardens can function to exploit Japanese aesthetics.

Japanese-style Gardens and Cultural Appropriation

Besides exploitation, Japanese-style gardens can also invoke instances of cultural appropriation. As was explained earlier, Japanese-style gardens are objects of mimesis, functioning to represent some other religious ideal or aspect of nature. In this way, a Japanese-style garden can be defined as a purveyor of cultural display. As Masao Yamaguchi argues, “the act of display thus involves the process of classification and presupposes naming” (Karp, 61). Because of this, Japanese-style gardens are therefore responsible for determining what kind of perception the observer undertakes upon viewing them. It becomes easy then, for the creators of a Japanese-style gardens to portray them in ways that are meant to reflect the true nature of Japan. However, because the idea of Japan is different to everyone, the meanings assigned to certain aspects of Japanese-style gardens through display are subjective. Inevitably, this leads to cultural appropriation—the act of “cutting objects out of specific contexts and making them ‘stand for’ abstract wholes” (Clifford, 144).

In the Earl Burns Miller Japanese-style garden in Long Beach, California, nstances of cultural appropriation in the past prompted changes to its overall design and look. Originally designed by a landscape architect with no prior experience in Japanese-gardening, the Earl Burns Miller garden was criticized for being “inauthentic”. A professor of Asian American studies criticized the garden for its “artificial, concrete-cast rocks, overly dramatic waterfall, and general lack of sensitivity” (Brown, 132). In this way, it becomes apparent that the architect that originally designed the garden failed to produce an “authentic” space, and instead appropriated his own interpretations of Japanese culture into its features. Due to outrage from the Asian-American community, the garden was modified with the help of Koichi Kawana, a Japanese landscape designer. Appropriate changes were made, including the import of real stones, the planting of bonzai, and the modification of the waterfall. Criticisms about the garden soon stopped after these changes were implemented.

In the Descanso garden as mentioned before, both the Snapple machine and the objects found within the gift shop are vindictive of cultural appropriation. In the case of the Snapple machine, the tea it provided became appropriated into an aspect of Japanese culture. Though tea is not strictly a Japanese phenomenon, by placing the Snapple machine in the same space as the tea house, a visitor may perceive it to be so. In the same way, in the case of the gift shop, a visitor observed the presence of the book “Memoirs of a Geisha”, a novel dealing with geisha culture in pre-modern Japan (nfrancis, 1). Because the book seems out of place in the context of a Japanese-style garden, its presence reveals the present function of the garden to collectively represent all of Japan.

Japanese Gardens and Cultural Authenticity

The concept of authenticity is not easily definable in linear terms. As an idea, authenticity remains subjective and polymorphous, easily changing to fit the perceptions that one may have about a cultural object. Therefore, in terms of Japanese-style gardens, there exists many different and contrasting criteria that denote its’ “authenticity”. For some, an object’s cultural authenticity rests on its’ proximity to the given culture itself. For many Japanese-style gardens built in America, the perception pervaded that they were built to imitate real Japanese gardens of Japan. The creators of the gardens therefore, received much more acclaim and legitimacy if they themselves enjoyed close, cultural proximity with Japan. Brown argued that this enabled observers to perceive that, “the closer the designer to Japan, the greater the authenticity of the garden” (Brown, 15). What one must realize when looking at Japanse-style gardens however, is that the alleged “authenticity” of a garden merely reflects the cultural perceptions of the person making that claim.

When analyzing the focus of a Japanese-style garden to foster communal space, the concept of authenticity can reflect one’s perception on the garden’s community surroundings. In the James Irvine Garden, an observer asserted that, “the garden appears to be in decline. Weeds grow in and among the plants and rocks, and branches of plants have been allowed to grow over bridge railings, impeding the visitor’s walking path” (jdecker, 1). For some observers, this description would signal an illustration of in-authenticity. In the past, Japanese gardens underwent “parallel changes in Western design and thought...often represent[ing] quaintness and romance, the picturesque assemblage of materials for maximum decorative effect and moral edification” (Brown, 9). Because a Western-style garden aims in creating a “formal, artificial space” to tame the “wild” aspects of nature (Brown 9), a Western-oriented observer, unaware of the original intended purpose of Japanese gardens, would find the unkempt overgrowth of the James Irvine garden degrading towards the garden’s overall austerity. This is turn would translate to in-authenticity. Such a perception would reveal the observer’s own inclination towards recognizing instances of strict order and immaculateness central to the Japanese identity. On the other hand, an observer could argue that the very degradation of the garden made it more authentic. Modern interpretation of the Japanese garden regards it as “asymmetrical” and an “informal, natural space” that seeks an “affinity with nature” (Brown, 9). Using these terms, one could interpret the wild, overgrowth of the James Irvine garden as striving to be more authentic, seeking the same fundamental aesthetics that are present in real Japanese gardens.

When questioning the authenticity of gardens intended for cultural exploitation however, the discussion seems more clear-cut. Most would argue that gardens such as the New Otani or Descanso would be considered less authentic, as the very act of cultural exploitation implies that these gardens are being used as something that they’re not. Such a claim would reveal a cultural perception of Japan as embodying purity, spirituality, and nature untainted by the modern evils of materialism and consumerism. One could argue the exact opposite, however, that such a garden invokes the modern ideals of a modern Japan. The presence of a gift shop in a Japanese-style garden therefore, could reflect Japan’s widespread tendencies of mass consumerism and consumption.

Furthermore, in questioning the authenticity of gardens affected by cultural appropriation, the inclination of how one wants to view Japan is revealed. In the case of the Earl Burns Miller garden, the fact that it was built by an American architect and rejected by the Asian community, revealed the misconceptions that Americans had towards Japan. The fact that Koichi Kawana was a member of the Japanese-American community also showed how his close cultural proximity enabled him a greater degree of authenticity. As for the Descanso garden, its Snapple machine and gift shop reflected how some appropriate the culture of Japan into objects such as tea and geisha. The perceived authenticity of the garden therefore, would be based on whether one accepts those objects as representational of Japan.

The effects that these gardens exuded on their surrounding communities, the transformations they underwent, and the cultural implications they held all help in understanding their varying degrees of authenticity. The judgments made on the authenticity of the garden can prompt the observer into questioning what the garden’s state of appearance signifies in a broader context. For the James Irvine garden, does the state of “disrepair” of the garden signify a weakened, less involved Japanese community? Or, does the garden’s closer proximity to an authentic Japan convey a more ethnically strong Japanese-American community? Regarding the New Otani garden, does its qualities of exploitation distance or connect the observer to Japan? Finally, in the Descanso garden, does its appropriation of culture accurately portray the Japanese? The purpose of this paper is not to definitively answer these questions, but to instead make the reader aware of how perceptions of authenticity can reveal one’s own conceptions of other cultures and peoples. Only by understanding the context, both historical and cultural, in which Japanese-style gardens were created and how this in turn factors into its’ “authenticity” can such an awareness be possible.


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© 2007 Justin Tanaka