April 18, 2021

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The Japanese Garden in SF’s Golden Gate Park is one of many in Calif. with a tragic history

In 1894, 25 cents gained you entry to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. A lot has changed since then, but the novelty of these serene, pine-and-rock-filled oases hasn’t worn off.

California’s trove of Japanese gardens is not unique; more than 250 of them are spread over North America. But our connection to the people who built and cared for them is. During World War II, when people of Japanese, Italian and German descent were considered a threat to national security, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order created concentration camps that turned the lives of 112,000 Japanese Americans, mostly American citizens, upside down almost overnight.

In San Francisco’s Tea Garden, the family home of Makoto Hagiwara, a landscape architect who had managed the garden from 1895 until his death 1925, was quickly demolished and his family were sent to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Signs identifying the garden as Japanese were altered to say “Oriental.” Its Shinto shrine was removed. And yet, amid the fury of anti-Japanese propaganda, the garden was spared.

Temple Gate in the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco.

Enjoynz/Getty Images

“Even though we were at war with the Japanese government, there was this subtle understanding that we were not completely at war with Japanese culture,” notes Steven Pitsenbarger, who has overseen the garden since 2007. During these years, he adds, a proposal came out to convert the garden into a hamburger stand. Locals wouldn’t hear of it.

“There was a public outcry,” Pitsenbarger said. “People wanted to preserve it.”

While San Franciscans continued to hold Japanese gardens in high esteem, society at large did not extend the same courtesy to Japanese Americans themselves. Accounts from the 10 U.S.-run concentration camps scattered across the West reveal the brutal conditions inside: “When the gates shut, we knew that we had lost something that was very precious; that we were no longer free,” wrote Mary Tsukamoto, a civil rights activist from Sacramento, who spent time in the camp at Jerome, Arkansas.

Forlorn looking American soldier standing guard in front of some Japanese American citizens awaiting transport to relocation camps after they were forcebly rounded up from their homes all along the west coast.

Forlorn looking American soldier standing guard in front of some Japanese American citizens awaiting transport to relocation camps after they were forcebly rounded up from their homes all along the west coast.

Dorothea Lange/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Kinzuchi Fujii, a carpenter and designer of Pasadena’s celebrated Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden, experienced this contrast firsthand. The 2-acre sanctuary, which opened to the public in 2016 after decades as a private property, is considered a masterpiece, with its 25-foot waterfall and lush overhang of sycamore and oak trees. But Fujii, who was commissioned to build the garden by the Storrier Stearns family in 1935, was forced to abandon construction in 1942, before his creation was complete.
 
For those unfamiliar with the plight of Japanese Americans, these gardens appear whimsical, refined, leisurely. But for first- and second-generation Japanese immigrants, many of whom went into business doing generic yard maintenance after the war, the reality was less glamorous.

“Many got pushed into working on landscapes,” notes Pitsenbarger. “It wasn’t a highly respected or well-paid job. But it was all they could get.”

Of course, not all Japanese American gardeners fell neatly into this category. Takeo Uesugi, the renowned landscape architect responsible for the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego and the James Irvine Garden in Los Angeles, used his designs to elevate the genre of Japanese gardens in California while also acknowledging the struggles of his people.

“He wanted to embody the Japanese American experience,” says Keiji Uesugi, Takeo’s son, who continues his father’s legacy as a landscaper and lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona. Using these gardens to reflect the resilience of Japanese Americans, explains Keiji, was central to his father’s work.

Reflecting on this history today gives Keiji “an appreciation of what that first generation had to overcome, to achieve what they did. They had the cards stacked against them, and yet they went on to provide for their family and find success.”
 
Can blockbuster attractions like the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Storrier Stearns Garden help reconcile this troubling history? When I ask Keiji, his answer is pointed: “It’s complicated.”
 
Today, Japanese gardens continue to flourish and evolve in ways their creators could never have imagined. (The Friendship Garden in Balboa Park recently added a massive cherry tree grove; it receives more than 240,000 visitors every year.) But for Keiji, a similar effort is required to acknowledge the men and women who made these spaces possible. “You can relate it to the Latinx experience,” he says. “It’s about the limited options that immigrants face when they come to America.”

Visitors walk through the Japanese tea garden.

Visitors walk through the Japanese tea garden.

Glenn Moore/EyeEm/Getty Images

One of the signatures of Japanese gardening is to be unobtrusive, to interfere with nature as little as possible. Local plants are used, and the eccentricities of the physical setting are emphasized, not altered. Rocks and boulders are treated with respect and placed with care. 
 
The fact that Japanese public gardens have endured for more than a century only adds to their charm. Strolling through a place like San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, it’s impossible not to feel overcome by a sense of balance, as if everything in this garden was intended to be here. For Japanese Americans subject to the whims of a rash political climate a century ago, that was not a luxury they were able to enjoy.