In addition to Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University, the original designer of Portland Japanese Garden, eight Garden Directors and two Garden Curators from Japan have overseen the development and maintenance of the original five gardens over its 60 years. This lineage of Japanese wagashi (garden master) has made our garden unique among Japanese style gardens in North America.
In celebration of our 60th anniversary in 2023, Kinya Hira, Portland Japanese Garden’s first Garden Director (1964-1969), shared a message of healing and peace through his personal experience of building Portland Japanese Garden not even 20 years after the end of World War II.
We are also grateful to share this beautiful letter from Hira san, in which he shares his experiences from his time in Portland.
Just a note from an old man:
Portland Japanese Garden as a Reminder of Peace and Reconciliation
Portland Japanese Garden may mean different things to different people. For some visitors, it may be a place to relax and learn about the Japanese culture, or a place of fond memories with a sweetheart. For some directors, the Garden may be like their precious child who they cared for and proudly watched grow into a beautiful princess.
That is when I asked myself, “What does the Garden mean to me?” As the first director, what does this Garden symbolize to me personally? And I have concluded that to me, this Garden is a reminder of peace and reconciliation. A symbol that the City of Portland has the heart to forgive and accept foreign cultures. These are the virtues that this great nation was built upon.
At first, I was hesitant to tell this story. But I am 80 years old now. I feel it’s my duty to be honest about what happened in the early 1960s.
It was 1964 when I first came to this beautiful city of Portland with Professor Tono. And not too many people know that there was harsh opposition in the beginning. During the initial phase of the construction, hate groups gathered at the site, and chanted racial slurs at me. I was even hospitalized one time when I attempted to stop a group vandalizing the garden. When I confronted them, I quickly understood that this anger came from the war. I remember one man yelling, “you killed my father.” That’s when I realized that this Garden, to some, may have reminded them of their loved ones who were lost in the war.
And who can blame them? It had only been 20 years since that horrible war. Both sides lost precious families and loved ones in that war. And now, just because the government says so, we must be friends again? That is just too much to ask of a human. And now, we are building a Japanese garden on American soil? Of course there will be opposition.
However, as weeks turned into months, the sentiment started to shift. Little by little, people would support me and the Garden. They started to see and understand what I was trying to do here. The people of Portland found something in their hearts to forgive and accept; to let go of the anger and begin to reach out. I remember one time when the same hate mob came to the site, my supporters actually fought them off, protecting me and the Garden. For the first time in America, I didn’t feel alone, I felt accepted by the people of Portland.
In 1967, we opened the Garden to the public. Slowly but steadily, visitors grew in numbers. They were so enthusiastic and would continually ask me questions about the Garden. But there is one visitor that I can’t forget. She was an elderly woman supported by her daughter. She came to me and said in a beautiful voice, “Thank you.” And she teared. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m thinking too much. But as she walked away with her daughter, I felt that she had gone through so much pain. And I’d like to think something about the Garden gave her some peace of mind.
Now that I look back on those times, I can’t help but be amazed at how Americans were able to overcome their past and reach out to their once enemy and accept their culture. This is what makes this country so great: willingness to accept other cultures. And not too many countries can do that. This is what makes this nation so unique.
However, the world is strange today. We are starting to isolate ourselves once again and looking for enemies. I can’t help but feel that we are starting to forget our mistakes in the past; the lessons our ancestors taught us with their lives. How much we endured just to learn how to live with each other on this earth. So let this Garden be a reminder to us all. A reminder how the people of Portland had the courage to forgive and accept the culture of the once enemy. This Garden is a monument of peace and a message to the world that, to borrow Hillary Clinton’s words, “We don’t need to be building walls, we need to be building bridges.” Just some notes I had to get off my chest.
~ Kinya Hira, Portland Japanese Garden Director from 1964-1969
Garden Directors at Portland Japanese Garden
Hugo Torii, Garden Curator 2020–
Sadafumi Uchiyama, Garden Curator 2008-2020; Chief Curator 2020-2023
Toru Tanaka, Served as Garden Director 1988–90
Takao Donuma, Served as Garden Director 1985–87
Kichiro Sano, Served as Garden Director 1982–84
Masayuki Mizuno, Served as Garden Director 1977–80
Michio Wakui, Served as Garden Director 1974-76
Hachiro Sakakibara, Served as Garden Director 1972–74
Hoichi Kurisu, Served as Garden Director 1968–73
Kinya Hira, Served as Garden Director 1964–69
Takuma Tono, Original Garden Designer 1961–64