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From Mainichi Shimbun: Portland Japanese Garden’s History and Future Plans Explored

The Antique Gate at Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Bruce Forster.

Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most widely read newspapers, recently covered Portland Japanese Garden’s history and its plans to educate a new generation of Japanese gardeners through Japan Institute and its International Japanese Garden Training Center. Journalist Akiko Horiyama spoke with CEO Steve Bloom as well as Misako Ito, Executive Director of the Garden’s Japan Office in Tokyo. A translated version is below. The original article in Japanese is also available.

A Japanese Garden in America Plans to Train Gardeners
By Akiko Horiyama
November 7, 2023

Portland Japanese Garden in the State of Oregon is regarded as “the most authentic Japanese Garden” among all other over 500 Japanese gardens open to the public around the globe. About 500,000 people from 90 countries visit the garden annually, and in the 1970s, Frank Sinatra, a well-known Japanophile singer, visited the garden. He was the originator of the Japanese garden craze among celebrities by having Japanese gardeners create his garden.

This popular spot is planning to renovate a former educational facility in Portland in order to open a training center for gardeners who want to master the techniques and skills of Japanese gardening.

In Japan, there is declining number of successors for gardeners, but in the U.S., on the contrary, interest in opening a garden is increasing.  And what is the “purpose” of the new center, let alone the technique of Japanese gardening in Portland?

The garden was opened in 1963 by Portland local residents who invited Japanese gardeners to create a garden to promote reconciliation between Japan and the U.S. after WWII.  Over 500 guests attended the 60th Anniversary Gala held on October 21 in Portland, and toured the Garden with [eight] different styles, the Cultural Village designed by Kengo Kuma, and also a proposed site for the training center.

The big Japanese maples looked at home in the deep forests of Portland. One Japanese participant said that she was amazed how well the Japanese gardens blended in with the local plants enjoying the beautiful scenery of forest in Portland.

[Kjersti Fløgstad], the director of the Nobel Peace Center attended the event and made a speech saying that “peace and democracy must always be carefully tended, just like needed in the gardening.”

Japanese gardens are a symbol of peace, more so than in most people think in Japan.  This is especially true in the Portland Japanese Garden. In 1954, when the scars of war were still deep, the city of Yokohama presented a lantern as a token of friendship of U.S.-Japan relations. 

That was named the “Peace Lantern” and has been carefully conserved.  To further strengthen and bridge of peace, Portland Japanese Garden presented replicas of this lantern to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki last year. The garden is also a symbol of the Japanese culture, like tea ceremony and haiku, which emphasizes harmony with nature and the importance of Ichigo-Ichie.

I [the writer of this column] have the impression that they are trying to teach the comprehensive art of Japanese gardens, perhaps to the point where Japanese people are unaware of it. When the question was cast to Steve Bloom, CEO of the Garden, “What does it mean to have Japanese garden outside of Japan?”, he answered immediately with a laugh, “That’s a big question. It may not be the same as the Japanese garden in Japan, but I have been discussing the elements of the Japanese gardens, the essence of the Japanese culture and I have come to understand the concept of harmony with nature.  There is a universality that transcends borders and human beings.”

It was not, however, an easy road for the culture of Japanese Garden to take root in Portland. Oregon had a strong anti-Japanese sentiment after the War, and during the construction work, residents opposed to the project came to the site holding placards with racist slogans and graffiti in the tea ceremony room. In the fall of 1966, Kinya Hira, 86, a resident of Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and the first Garden Director of the garden, had to confront with the hatred because some of their family members were killed by Japan during the War. Living in a trailer truck on the Garden site in order to protect the Garden, he experienced the direct anti-Japanese sentiment, and he said “I am strong because I do judo, but I was attacked by a group of people at night … and was stabbed by an opposition resident.”

Hira continued that the change in hatred was felt at a tour for local residents held before the Japanese garden was completed.  One female visitor in her 80s glared at Hira and said, “Are you Japanese?”   When she came out of the garden after the two-hour tour, she had a peaceful expression on her face with tears in her eyes.

The woman said, “Thank you. The war is finally over.”

Hira continued, “Japanese gardens are not to be seen with the eyes, but to be felt with the heart. There are not many flowers, are there? Even if there are, they are only a little on the side of the stones. The delicate changes of the four seasons are noticed and love is felt in the garden.”

Mr. Hira analyzed the power of Japanese gardens to bring peace of mind, and has high hopes for the training of gardeners in the future. And he added that “I hope that they will not forget the core values of Japanese gardens, which are peace and love.”

Portland Japanese Garden and its Japan office are now trying to build horizontal partnerships with other Japanese garden organizations outside of Japan, including 250 Japanese gardens in North America.

Misako Ito, Japan Office Representative, said, “We would like to create a platform where organizations and gardeners who maintain Japanese gardens around the world can interact and learn from each other about ‘harmony with nature’ and ‘peace of mind,’ rather than Japan solely teaching from a superior perspective. It would be nice to have a project where gardeners from Japan and overseas work together to restore long-neglected gardens.”

If people learn not only the traditions of Japanese gardens, but also their universality and diversity, more younger Japanese will want to become gardeners. Japanese people themselves may rediscover the “heart” of Japanese gardens.