‘How the West Interacted with Japanese Gardens’ – Lecture Analysis

Photograph of Heian Shrine (平安神宮) gardens, Kyoto

Lecture given in 2016 as part of The Third Ishibashi Foundation Lecture Series – Japanese Gardens: To Whom Do They Belong?

Professor Toshio Watanabe’s lecture How the West Interacted with Japanese Gardens provided a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Western world and the Japanese garden. Toshio’s discussion covered early encounters the West had with Japanese gardens both in person and through publications, how interactions between the West and Japan influenced the perception of Japanese gardens and examples of ‘Japanese gardens’ from all over the world. 

Although individuals from the West had travelled to Japan and visited gardens, it was at international exhibitions where most people first encountered Japanese gardens e.g. Weltausstellung (1873). These events influenced not only the Western image of Japanese gardens and culture but, by extension, Japan as a whole. This was utilised by the Japanese government as a form of soft diplomacy. The role of politics in these events is exemplified by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915) in San Fransisco, where Japan threatened to pull out of the expo due to the treatment of Japanese immigrants in San Fransisco (an upcoming vote on whether to ban Japanese immigrants from owning land). In order to mollify Japan and keep them in the expo, the vote was delayed. Despite the anti-Japanese sentiments prevalent at the time, the Japanese garden at the expo was still highly reviewed and thoroughly appreciated.

English-language publications, at the time, defined the Western view of Japanese gardens. Although these publications were informative and increased interest in Japan, some lead to the propagation of misinformation. A revealing example of this, prevalent even today, is the association of Japanese gardens with spirituality. It was Loraine E.Kuck’s successive books on Japanese gardens, including One Hundred Kyoto Gardens (1935), that linked Ryōanji Garden to Zen Buddhism. This link was then repeated frequently. Part of the entrenchment of the association between Japanese gardens with spirituality is due to the Japanese seizing the connotation as a means with which to promote Japan. This highlights how false connotations have become associated with Japanese gardens.

Today, there are ‘Japanese gardens’ to be found on nearly every continent, but this then raises the question of what qualifies as a ‘Japanese garden’? Defining ‘Japanese garden’ is not a facile exercise, as innumerable difficulties arise: Is it a garden in Japan? If so, then the ‘Japanese gardens’ at international exhibitions (which defined early ideas) do not qualify. Is it a garden designed by a Japanese person? Then a ‘Japanese person’ must also be defined and, in an increasingly multicultural world, would an individual whose parents are both Japanese but was born and raised in Britain qualify? Perhaps a Japanese garden can be defined by the use of Japanese plants? But would simply selecting Japanese plants be enough to constitute a garden? How important is the relationship with nature in defining a ‘Japanese garden’? 

Analysis of the lecture has suggested three significant factors to be aware of when studying Japanese gardens: the difficulties which arise with definition; the embedded quality of soft diplomacy; the really problematic area of false connotations.


Photograph of Heian Shrine (平安神宮) gardens, Kyoto



4 Replies to “‘How the West Interacted with Japanese Gardens’ – Lecture Analysis

  1. Thank you Zoe for a very thoughtful lecture review. I agree that the most interesting issues Professor Watanabe raised concerned the consolidation of the Japanese identity of its gardens through foreign encounters and gaze. It is also important to question the almost unquestioned association of gardens with Zen and spirituality, as this is only one aspect of them, which can limit our perception and understanding.

  2. Hi Zoe, Thanks for your post. You had been to Japan and had some idea. What was your first impression on Japanese garden when you visited some in Japan. Have your definition on Japanese garden the same before and after the lecture?

    1. Hi Natsue,

      When I visited (2015) I loved gardens with bridges and steeping stones over water and beautiful trees. The Heian Shrine garden in the photos is the one I remember enjoying best. It shaped my idea of what a Japanese garden was. Post lecture, with the discussion around defining what is a ‘ Japanese garden’, I think my idea of what can be a Japanese garden has definitely become wider and more inclusive. There is a lot more variety than I realised.

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