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Celebrating a Legacy and Embracing a New Chapter

The Cultural Village at Portland Japanese Garden, a building with a green roof among the forest of Washington Park.
The Cultural Village, a space that leaders Sadafumi Uchiyama and Cynthia Johnson Haruyama were instrumental in building. Photo by James Florio

Portland Japanese Garden to See Transition in Leadership

Portland Japanese Garden has always espoused a stewardship mindset, motivated by the knowledge that it was built to last centuries and have its future led by successive generations. At the end of 2023, Portland Japanese Garden will see the retirement of two seminal figures who have led the organization for more than a decade: Sadafumi (Sada) Uchiyama and Cynthia Johnson Haruyama. Uchiyama has served as Chief Curator since 2021, a title he was bestowed after having served as Garden Curator beginning in 2008. He has also served as Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center. Johnson Haruyama has served as Deputy Director since 2012.

Left: Chief Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama. Photo by Nina Johnson. Right: Deputy Director Cynthia Johnson Haruyama. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Holding degrees in law from Columbia University and East Asian studies from Princeton University, Johnson Haruyama had previously led two other beloved Portland attractions, Hoyt Arboretum and Lan Su Chinese Garden, before being appointed to her position at Portland Japanese Garden. Not long after having assumed the role of Deputy Director, Johnson Haruyama was tasked with managing the capital campaign and planning logistics and operations for the Garden’s $37.5 million Cultural Crossing expansion project, a multiple award-winning success that doubled the acreage of the institution’s footprint and added four new buildings in a space not so easily modified. Her grounded perspective, tenacity, and ability to connect with others through her empathy was also crucial when the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized the long-term future of the Garden. Johnson Haruyama helped not only steer the organization’s 140 staff through uncharted territory but also navigate a repeated whiplash of adjustments to its operations. Recently, she has been once again shepherding a monumental task in the form of Japan Institute, overseeing the renovation project on its Forest Park-adjacent campus.

Deputy Director Cynthia Johnson Haruyama at a Portland Japanese Garden event in 2023.

Uchiyama, a fourth-generation Japanese-born gardener with multiple degrees in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois, served as Vice President on Portland Japanese Garden’s Board of Trustees before becoming a member of the organization’s staff leadership in 2008. An internationally recognized and award-winning niwashi (master gardener) who has received a Foreign Minister’s Commendation from the Foreign Ministry of Japan, Uchiyama conceived of, championed, and shepherded the creation of the Portland-based International Japanese Garden Training Center, a globally unique educational institution that combines authentic and traditional Japanese landscape architecture and design apprenticeship with more accessible and modernized, instructor-driven coursework in English. His tireless and passionate advocacy of Japanese gardens was instrumental in the development and establishment of the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA) in 2009. Uchiyama’s prolific and creative work can be seen beyond Portland; his consultation and leadership has influenced the design of Japanese gardens, including those in Denver, Chicago, Dallas, and Osaka, Japan.

Sadafumi Uchiyama accepting an award from the Government of Japan in 2023.
Portland Japanese Garden Chief Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama conferred Foreign Minister’s Commendation from the Foreign Ministry of Japan. Photo by Nina Johnson.

While Johnson Haruyama and Uchiyama will be retiring, they will remain an active and integral part of the organization. Johnson Haruyma will transition into a part-time role guiding the Japan Institute campus remodeling project through its completion, and Uchiyama will take on the title of Curator Emeritus as well as continue to be an invaluable faculty member at the International Japanese Garden Training Center of Japan Institute.

Left: Garden Curator Hugo Torii. Photo by Jonathan Ley. Right: Incoming Executive Director Lisa Christy. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Simultaneous to Johnson Haruyama and Uchiyama’s departures will be the promotion of a Garden leader who has been with the organization for nearly a decade. Chief External Affairs Officer Lisa Christy will be appointed Executive Director of Portland Japanese Garden. Physical Garden stewardship will continue to be overseen by the organization’s Garden Curator since 2021, Hugo Torii. Torii and Christy will continue to report to CEO Steve Bloom, who has led the organization since 2005. Ahead of this transition, Uchiyama and Johnson Haruyama sat down to look back upon their journey with Portland Japanese Garden.

Sada and Cynthia: What have your respective responsibilities been at the Garden? 

Uchiyama: As Chief Curator, my responsibility has been to oversee the overall design of Portland Japanese Garden, as well as to lead and facilitate the artistic vision for the physical garden spaces. As the Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center, I have overseen the planning, establishment, and implementation of its programmatic plans and strategies. At the end of the day, I am here to be a representative of and advocate for Portland Japanese Garden locally, regionally, and internationally. This advocacy will continue past my employment here. 

Johnson Haruyama:  When I joined the Garden, it was to be part of creating a valuable legacy for our community, which has manifested in a variety of ways, but perhaps most noticeably through our 2017 Cultural Crossing expansion, which more than doubled the footprint of our grounds with four new buildings designed by Kengo Kuma and three additional garden spaces. More recently, I’ve been working on the renovation for our new Japan Institute campus, another legacy project for our community. I will continue working on this in my “semi-retirement” until renovations are completed. Amidst these larger tasks, I’ve worked on organizational growth, including increasing the number of visitors we welcome and tripling our staff. 

Sada and Cynthia, what accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure with Portland Japanese Garden? 

Uchiyama: With each generation, we have collectively redefined what a Japanese garden can do. We’ve been able to realize its potential – that this is not just a place with nice plants and stones. It is the nature of my role to be thinking about the next generation, that’s why it was critical to have established the International Japanese Garden Training Center. There are around 200 to 250 publicly accessible Japanese gardens in North America alone. To keep these places pristine and beautiful, we needed to create a place that teaches the technical and philosophical elements of Japanese gardening in an accessible manner. 

Johnson Haruyama: Everything I’m proud of has been a team effort—it’s been rewarding to work with an effective team that can achieve collectively what would be impossible to achieve as an individual. Aside from the Cultural Crossing campaign and project, I am extremely proud of the work we did in ensuring the Garden’s survival through the pandemic and the work we did to keep our staff and visitors safe. There are many more accomplishments we pulled off together, but one I would be remiss not to mention the development of our staff. This means both bringing in people of extraordinary abilities like Lisa and [Garden Curator Hugo Torii] but also the growth of so many members of our staff, some of who’ve started in entry-level positions and are now managers and directors here or at other nonprofits. 

Sada and Cynthia, how does it feel to leave an organization you’ve been a leader of for so long? 

Uchiyama: Portland Japanese Garden had existed for almost 30 years before I started becoming involved with it and it will exist 500, 600 years past my tenure. So really, my time here has been very small when looking at the bigger picture. What has always been important for me is to remember that I am just one in a lineage of stewards. Just as the previous eight Garden Directors did before me, it is time to step away and let the next generation take on the mantle of leadership. They will do well. 

Johnson Haruyama: Retirement wasn’t even on the horizon for me back in 2020. I’m not the only one for whom the pandemic years were the equivalent of about 10 regular years of work. I’m still passionate about the Garden, its mission, and the people it serves, and the wonderful team of staff, volunteers, and Board Members who are continuing to co-create and sustain this organization. I’m ready to pass the torch to my esteemed colleagues.   

Sada and Cynthia, what are your hopes for the future of both Portland Japanese Garden and Japan Institute? 

Uchiyama: For Portland Japanese Garden to continue being a facilitator in spreading the message and practice of Japanese gardening and cultural education. I imagine a graduate student, 50 years down the road, writing a thesis on how the organization sparked a movement in Japanese gardens becoming a leader in cultural diplomacy. It is something that has begun in the Garden and will be taken to further heights through Japan Institute.  

Johnson Haruyama: I know Portland Japanese Garden is on a strong path under the leadership of Steve, Lisa, Hugo, and the Board of Trustees. I’ve heard enough stories and memories from our community that I know the organization will continue to provide meaningful experiences to people from all corners of our community and from around the world. As for Japan Institute, it may be fledgling at first, first but its mission and magical location next to Forest Park should blossom into an important resource for our community and a world-renowned center for Japanese arts and garden craftsmanship.