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The Power of Portland: Living Traditions Marks Renewed Focus on Portland-Based Programming for Japan Institute

Sunrise over Mt. Hood, ribbons of pink, yellow, red, and purple highlight the sky.
The sun rises over Portland in this view from our Mt. Hood Overlook. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

On February 3, more than 200 people gathered in the atrium space of Wieden + Kennedy (W+K), an iconic Portland advertising agency with offices around the world along with deep ties with Japan. The excited crowd filed in to attend the newest installment of Living Traditions, a series of conversations and talks that explore some of the most iconic facets of Japanese culture and traditions. Presented by Japan Institute of Portland Japanese Garden supported by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, the series has featured cultural stewards from a diverse range of creative disciplines exploring the intersection of culture, nature, and human ingenuity. Precisely the exciting and unique programming that Japan Institute has begun to offer since its 2022 establishment, this marked one of the organization’s first events of 2024, and importantly, it was held at home.

The atrium at the offices of Wieden + Kennedy, where this installment of Living Traditions was hosted. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

While the pandemic, economy, and partisanship have introduced difficulties in nearly every part of the world, Rose City has been zeroed in on for the challenges it is facing. Portland Japanese Garden recognizes that as one of the region’s most vital cultural organizations, it has a responsibility to be among those in the vanguard in improving the mood in its home city. Aside from its continued efforts to make the Garden more accessible, it has taken on an audacious new venture called Japan Institute. Japan Institute is a global cultural initiative that is expanding the Garden’s successful programming. While it hopes to share the experiences of Portland Japanese Garden around the world so that more communities can pursue peace through nature, it is first and foremost a Portland-based organization.

Aki Nakanishi is the Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education at Portland Japanese Garden, responsible for formulating and providing the programming by both the Garden and Japan Institute. A public diplomacy expert with more than 20 years of experience in government relations, public communication, artistic exchanges, and cultural programming, Nakanishi is excited for what the organizations will be able to do for the city he moved to from his native Japan.

Steve Bloom speaking into a microphone.
Japan Institute and Portland Japanese Garden CEO Steve Bloom greeting attendees of Living Traditions to the event. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

“Portland Japanese Garden is a very successful case study in peace making through cultural diplomacy rooted in our reverence for nature,” Nakanishi shared, explaining the thought process that led to Japan Institute. “Over the course of its more than 60 years, it has brought together people from all walks of life for better cultural understanding through mutual appreciation of nature, culture, and arts. Building off this, we started talking to our Japanese counterparts based in Japan, to talk about the potential a garden might have for community building, urban planning, and addressing social issues.”

“This edition of Living Traditions was curated with Portland very much on our mind. We were looking to facilitate conversation across different creative segments of the Pacific Northwest, imbuing gleaming new ideas and visions into our city, while connecting our city with Japan and the entire world,” noted Nakanishi.

Among the guests who gathered in this assembly of global thought leaders were keynote speaker Yuko Hasegawa, Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, speaker Dorothée Imbert, the Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University, and speaker Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). They were joined by the event’s moderator, Dr. Ken Tadashi Oshima, Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington.

The Intersection of Culture, Art, and Nature

Ken Tadashi Oshima standing and talking into a microphone.
The event’s moderator, Dr. Ken Tadashi Oshima, Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

Steve Bloom, CEO of Portland Japanese Garden and Japan Institute, kicked the gathering off by explaining how the Garden’s rich history of being a nexus through which millions of individuals have convened had a direct throughline to Living Traditions. Referring to the 2017 expansion of the organization’s physical footprint, Bloom noted it was labeled the “Cultural Crossing” expansion for a reason. “[We offer] intersections of all different kinds, but most importantly, we’re based on this intersection of culture, art, and nature,” the longtime Garden leader shared. “The built environment, the natural environment, and intellectual environment can come together to inspire harmony and peace in our lives as individuals, communities, and nations around the world. And you may think that they’re little things, but when we walk through Portland Japanese Garden, when we have a space that speaks to us, it brings calm, it brings peace, it brings inspiration.”

Following Bloom’s opening remarks was Dr. Ken Tadashi Oshima. Oshima, who serves as Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington and was there to serve as moderator of a later panel discussion, spoke to how this iteration of Living Traditions was in a fitting venue. “The Wieden + Kennedy building embodies adaptive reuse,” Oshima noted. “It has been rejuvenated from a warehouse building constructed in 1908 into what we see in 2024. In that way, it’s connected to Portland Japanese Garden. I was astounded that the Garden was the Portland Zoo until 1959 before it became what it is today when it opened to the public in 1967. How it’s grown up to its glory today is truly astounding.”

Art as An Essential Mediator

Yuko Hasegawa standing a podium giving a presentation.
Keynote speaker Yuko Hasegawa. She serves as Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

Kicking off the program, Yuko Hasegawa began her keynote speech and presentation. Hasegawa is considered her nation’s foremost contemporary art curator and is a leader in integrating environmental awareness and ecology into art exhibitions and public programming.

Japan Institute and Portland Japanese Garden have stressed that nature’s influence on art extends further than just serving as inspiration for a given painting or photograph—art is nature manifested. Inks and pigments, canvases and tools, and our ability to perceive are all, fundamentally, expressions of the natural world. Hasegawa, similarly, shared that she views art and nature as sharing deep and inextricable bonds and that in the face of a rapidly changing climate, art will remain vital to our existence.

“The Anthropocene era [meaning the present geological era in which the planet’s climate is overwhelmingly affected by people], dominated by human influence and coupled with rapid technological advancements, has disrupted traditional relationships between nature and society,” Hasegawa offered. “It is within this context that art and design emerge as essential mediators, facilitating sensory learning and addressing conflicts, divisions, and imbalances. Aesthetics and ethics, fundamental to human existence, find their expression through art, fostering empathy, imagination, and intellectual renewal.”

While any number of the projects Hasegawa has contributed to or led would reflect her worldview, the Inujima Art House Project perhaps crystallizes it best. The work, set on the small island of Inujima in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, is a sterling example of how nature, architecture, and culture can intersect to create something that is ecologically beneficial and inspirational. On a spit of land once degraded by granite quarrying and copper refinement, Hasegawa conceptualized five different galleries in restored houses that not only reflect the surrounding environment but invite it in by reducing barriers. This reflects the Japanese perspective on nature, which Hasegawa noted has “no hierarchy that distinguishes humans from non-human entities.” Beyond the physical structures, the island has also become a hub that hosts communal gatherings such as cooking workshops. This is a natural parallel to Portland Japanese Garden, a site of brownfield redevelopment into a place that express artistic beauty and simultaneously serves as a nexus for social gatherings.

A Landscape that Avoids Invisibility

Dorothée Imbert giving a presentation.
Dorothée Imbert, Landscape Architect and Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

Following Hasegawa, those in attendance heard from Dorothée Imbert. A highly regarded expert in landscape architecture, Imbert talked how despite the “significant impact” a landscape has on our collective physical, emotional, environmental, and social wellbeing, it is often “downright invisible” with an inherent structure that vanishes as functions and meanings are laid upon it. She brought up a wall-mounted coat rack as an allegory—whatever aesthetic qualities it may possess escape our notice because of the dominant visibility of its function; the coats and hats it hangs take center stage, not the setting upon which they have been placed.

What is exciting, then, about gardens is that they can avoid invisibility—because they are both simultaneously a place and the “representation of an ideal.”  “The idea of a garden holds great potential for disruption of our distracted state,” Imbert noted.

Later in her panel discussion, Imbert expanded upon the idea of how intentionally designed gardens can capture our attention. “When you look at Portland Japanese Garden in its Pacific Northwest setting, you have this juxtaposition of environments—really tall trees and this kind of completely curated and beautifully thought through environment. There’s a sort of dual scale of landscape, which is very interesting to me.”

Architecture That Responds to the Landscape

Shohei Shigematsu giving a presentation.
Shohei Shigematsu, architect and OMA Partner and Director of OMA New York. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

Hugo Torii, Garden Curator of Portland Japanese Garden, has noted that what makes Japanese gardens distinct from those of other cultures is that they are consciously and intentionally designed to connect us to nature. This philosophy is executed throughout the Garden, such as how underneath the canopy of Douglas firs and cedars, trees such as black pines are kept a shorter height closer to humans or how the Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center has glass walls and wooden partitions that slide open to blur the line between indoors and outdoors.

This approach is one that is exemplified in the work of Shohei Shigematsu, who through his work at OMA has made stunning contributions to places such as Quebec City in Canada, Buffalo in the U.S., Tokyo in Japan, and beyond.  A theme among Shigematsu’s work is an interconnectedness with the landscape. As he noted later in the panel discussion, his efforts have roots in the history of the built environment. “Architecture had been responding to landscape until the Industrial Revolution and invention of air conditioning,” he shared.

One of his most recently completed projects is the Toranomon Hills Station Tower, a skyscraper in Tokyo that includes a new metro station at its base, cultural center at its top, and offices, restaurants, and a hotel in between. “The park goes through the center of the base—in order to do that we basically made a central core split from the sky so that the park had to go to the center,” Shigematsu explained. “You see the kind of movement of three dimensionally, the movement of urban activity and not just that highly public base. We wanted to make a highly public top to activate the whole building. So, there’s a kind of new type of museum that at the top that has a gallery space, event space that all faces outwards again to connect inside and outside.”

The Power of Portland

With this installment of Living Traditions now completed, Japan Institute is excited to continue presenting more programming opportunities in Portland. “The result was a truly astounding and resounding success for us and our community,” Nakanishi shared. “We were honored to welcome Reina Shiina from the Prime Minister of Japan’s Office. She told me, ‘I wish the Prime Minister could have seen this to feel firsthand the overwhelming energy and creative vibes that [Portland Japanese Garden] generates for the entire community.’ This represented an important milestone for our relationship with the city’s creative community as we try to make our city so very unique again. This was not merely making a simple forum, it’s a milestone moment in inspiring conversations around new collaborative ideas for other cultural players within the community we serve.”

Perhaps John C. Jay put it best. Jay, who had served as Global Executive Creative Director at W+K and is now President and Executive Creative Director at the global creative agency GX, is a member of Portland Japanese Garden’s International Advisory Board and attended the event. “[My wife and I] moved here in 1993,” Jay said gesturing to his wife Janet. “I know exactly the power of this city. I know exactly. I know we’re a little down and out at the moment, but I know exactly the power that sits in this room and what we can do together.”

More About the Creation of Living Traditions

Aki Nakanishi (left) giving a tour to Koichiro Matsumoto, Director of Research Coordination for the Japan Institute of International Affairs and previously Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Koichiro Matsumoto is Director of Research Coordination for the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a Tokyo-based think tank. Prior to his appointment there, Matsumoto had spent more than 25 years in public service including time as Global Issues Director for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office under three different prime ministers. A champion of cultural diplomacy, Matsumoto was an instrumental figure in establishing Living Traditions in 2020 during his time in the employ of the Japanese government. It was borne out conversations with Nakanishi.

“Aki and I go back more than 15 years,” Matsumoto shared. “During the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had just recently started my position with the Prime Minister’s office, and we took the time to be more inward looking. We wanted to be more cognizant of what we’re made of and what we should be doing. We thought it was very timely for us to talk about cultural issues. I spoke with Aki and Japan Society and from that point onwards it was quite easy to plan a multi-part series. People in Japan and the United States were tilting inward during the pandemic and developed a strong craving for culture. That sentiment gave birth to Living Traditions. We could have maybe partnered with other institutions but the fact that Aki and I had known each other encouraged me to partner with [Portland Japanese Garden]. In the end, I discovered that the richness of Japanese gardens was quite instrumental in this project.”

Initiated during the pandemic, Living Traditions had been offered exclusively through webinars, but in 2024 Japan Society and Japan Institute were able to have their first in-person gatherings in this program. After the first 2024 installment in New York, the series moved to Portland. Titled “A Conversation on Art, Architecture, and Landscape,” the program explored the future of urban environments and the evolving roles of creative institutions to inspire civic discourse.