The Sainsbury Institute Abroad

A thirst for Japanese gardens: Ishibashi Foundation Lectures on the popularity and progress of Japanese gardens outside of Japan

The lectures were organised with the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art and Historical Heritage, part of the Kyoto University of Art and Design. The iconic building that houses the Center was designed by the celebrated architect, Kuma Kengo.
The lectures were organised with the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art and Historical Heritage, part of the Kyoto University of Art and Design. The iconic building that houses the Center was designed by the celebrated architect, Kuma Kengo.

On 12 March 2016, we hosted the third Ishibashi Foundation Lecture Series in the historic city of Kyoto, Japan. The first of this series was held in December 2013 at the University of Tokyo on the theme of Euro-Japanese exchange in the world of creative expression. It was followed by the second series, which discussed Euro-Japanese archaeological exchanges from the 19th century to today, in October 2014, organised in collaboration with and held at the prestigious Tokyo National Museum. The Third Ishibashi Lecture Series, and the first major cultural event that we have organised in Kyoto, considered Japanese gardens and explored the popularity and progress of those found outside of Japan.

As a regular reader of our e-magazine would be aware, the Sainsbury Institute’s core activities centre around the promotion of studies of the Japanese arts and cultures in the UK and outside of Japan. The generous support from our sponsor, the Ishibashi Foundation, has enabled us to go even further, i.e. to share the current status of Japanese art and cultural studies in Europe with the audience in Japan, and also to demonstrate to them how their arts and cultures are interpreted and applied outside of Japan.

This time we were very fortunate to have had the excellent support from the dedicated team of the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art and Historical Heritage. The Center is led by Professor Amasaki Hiromasa, one of the most respected leading experts in the field of Japanese gardens, who also acted as the moderator for our panel discussion. The Center is part of the Kyoto University of Art and Design, which boasts the largest student number, for an art university in Japan, with over 8500 students ranging in age from 18 to 94. Its spectacular main campus is nestled on the foot of Mt. Uryu and its buildings are intricately laid on the steep slope, thus offering a magnificent view of Kyoto from a high vantage point.

The Research Center for Japanese Garden Art and Historical Heritage is housed in one of the most striking buildings on campus designed by the celebrated architect, Kuma Kengo, who also designed the new stadium for the Tokyo Olympics 2020. It was particularly apt that we had this year’s lecture series in Kyoto as it is home to numerous world-famous Japanese gardens and many people still consider Kyoto as the cultural capital of Japan. It was coincidental that, just after 10 days of our event at the Kyoto University of Art and Design, the Japanese government officially announced that the Agency for Cultural Affairs would move to Kyoto from Tokyo in the near future. This will be the first time a major governmental agency will be located outside Tokyo.

For this year’s lectures, we invited two distinguished speakers, Professor Toshio Watanabe, University of East Anglia (SISJAC) and University of the Arts London (TrAIN Research Centre), and Professor Wybe Kuitert, Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University, Korea and Kyoto University of Art and Design, to present their papers and discuss ‘Japanese Gardens: To whom do they belong?’, the overall theme of this year’s lecture series.

Professor Toshio Watanabe and Professor Wybe Kuitert in discussion with Professor Amasaki Hiromasa at the Third Ishibashi Foundation Lecture Series
Professor Toshio Watanabe and Professor Wybe Kuitert in discussion with Professor Amasaki Hiromasa at the Third Ishibashi Foundation Lecture Series

The first lecture, entitled ‘How the West Interacted with Japanese Gardens’ was given by Professor Toshio Watanabe. To answer this question, his illustrated talk looked at examples from around the mid-19th century to the present day, focusing on four themes. The first theme was how Westerners encountered Japanese gardens for the first time in Edo/Tokyo and also at the numerous international exhibitions across the world. It is estimated that just before the 1868 Meiji Restoration, there were around thousand daimyō gardens and many thousands of large and small gardens within the city limits. Professor Watanabe stated that more or less all foreign visitors to Japan in mid-19th century praised its gardens. While such reports were reaching the West, the first major official Japanese garden was built in Vienna in 1873 at its international exhibition. From then on until the 1960’s, Japanese gardens became a regular contribution by the Japanese to major international exhibitions and they were viewed by millions abroad every few years.

Secondly, Professor Watanabe explained how the information on Japanese gardens was conveyed to the West in English language publications. To illustrate this, he looked at two classic publications with contrasting views on Japanese gardens as examples. One was Josiah Conder’s ‘Landscape Gardening in Japan’ published in Tokyo in 1893, which emphasised purely aesthetic considerations in recommending Western readers to adopt the design of a Japanese garden while underplaying the historical and culturally specific elements of a Japanese garden design.
The other example was Harada Jirō’s ‘The Gardens of Japan’, published by the Studio in London in 1928, which emphasised spirituality.

He also looked at Christopher Tunnard’s book ‘Gardens in the Modern Landscape’, published in London in 1938, and explained the significance of its inclusion of Japanese modernist garden, which signalled the emergence of new appreciation of Japanese garden.

Professor Watanabe then considered the ways in which a new canon of Japanese gardens was created during the first half of the 20th century through complex interactions between the Japanese and the Westerners. He explained that this was a period when the canon of Japanese gardens was radically rewritten both by the Japanese and the Westerners, who started to intervene actively in the appreciation of certain types of Japanese gardens in general. The emergence of Katsura and Ryōanji as the twin pinnacles of Japanese garden design is a relatively recent occurrence, as late as the 1930s. Westerners, such as the German architect, Bruno Taut who was influenced by young Japanese modernist architects, Lorraine Kuck, writer and garden designer based in Hawaii, and Isamu Noguchi, artist and architect based in the US, played varied, complicated and major roles in creating this canon.

In the final part, Professor Watanabe shared some fascinating and telling examples of Japanese gardens created in the West. He showed that there had been three peaks of international interests in Japanese garden and they were during the first decades of the 20th century (e.g. the Queen Lili’uokalani Garden at Hilo in Hawaii), the immediate decades after WWII (e.g. the gardens of Manzanar Internment Camp in California), and from about the last decade of the last century up to our own time (e.g. over 100 gardens created in the last 10 to 20 years in Eastern Europe). The audience members were treated with a wonderful selection of pictures of varied and delightful Japanese gardens all over the world. He argued that the Japanese garden was probably one of the most significant phenomena of 20th and indeed of 21st century Japonisme. He concluded that it was clear that the West interacted with Japanese gardens in so many varied and fascinating ways. He also considered the questions of authenticity. Most Japanese gardens outside of Japan may not be ‘authentically Japanese’ as their brochures claim. However, they still convey something about Japan, some wonder, be it beauty, be it calmness. He compared Japanese gardens with Japanese cuisine and asked ‘As the proof of a good meal is the wonder one experiences by eating it, isn’t the proof of a good garden, the wonder one experiences just by visiting it?’.

Professor Wybe Kuitert’s lecture entitled ‘Japanese gardens and the beauty of nature’ followed. In his convincing talk, he stressed the importance of nature when considering Japanese gardens and evaluated some of the gardens created abroad both by Japanese and non-Japanese designers. He argued that Japanese gardens were deeply rooted in the intimate relationship between man and nature. But how does that work in reality outside of Japan, where nature there is naturally different from what one finds in Japan?

To address this question, firstly he considered the first images on Japanese garden-making that reached the West. They were from the Edo period Tsukiyama teizōden garden books, which were promoted by Josiah Conder and later by Samuel Newsom. He explained the Japanese government’s involvement in sponsoring Samuel Newson as well as the visit of the Garden Club of America in 1935, for which a book on Japanese gardens was published. Such promotional activities were organised with a backdrop of mounting uncertainty about the role of Japan in world politics, an uncertainty that became apparent as a search into the ‘spirit of Japan’.

Secondly, Professor Kuitert explored how the myth of the Japanese garden as something that could be made by following certain standards and rules, and at the same time, something that had symbolism and spirituality, was created. It was largely to do with publications such as the guide book published in 1937 on the occasion of a large international Education Conference in Tokyo. This guide book was intended for training Japanese instructors on how to speak in public about Japanese garden. In publications such as this, the importance of nature or gardening skills was overlooked and the Japanese garden was firstly, presented as something that could be made according to preset rules following the Tsukiyama teizōden garden books and secondly, as something spiritual and philosophical. A discourse on Japanese gardens and the enigmatic ‘spirit of Japan’ that Westerners took part to fill the gaps of understanding with their own mistaken or overwrought interpretations contributed to the creation of the myth.

Professor Kuitert then showed some examples of Japanese gardens created outside of Japan. They illustrated how Japanese gardens trying to demonstrate ‘Japaneseness’ failed on the point of being sensitive to nature. The same could be said for so-called ‘zen gardens’, or other gardens preoccupied by philosophy or symbolism. Professor Kuitert revealed that the foreigners’ tendency, i.e. their belief that the Japanese garden had symbolism and spirituality, was encouraged by Japanese designers outside of Japan, by commercial Japonica merchandise, and by local Japanese Garden specialists. To the amazement and amusement of the audience members, Professor Kuitert showed them what is called ‘Japanese garden kits’ which could be mail-ordered online at different prices depending on the grade of the kit. He concluded that the problem for Japanese gardens outside Japan was that the idea of ‘rules’ and ‘spirit’ translates into efforts of creating a certain ‘Japaneseness’. In making such efforts as trying to keep to the ‘traditional rules of the Japanese garden’ by focusing on a formally correct composition of rock, for example, and trying to demonstrate that their creation is ‘authentically’ Japanese, the creators tend to completely lack sensitivity to intimate relationship between the gardens and nature, which Professor Kuitert argued is an essential condition for making a successful garden.

The discussion continued in a more informal setting at the post-event reception
The discussion continued in a more informal setting at the post-event reception

Inspired by these two fascinating talks, a lively discussion followed, in which each speaker’s originality shone. The panel discussion was thoughtfully moderated by Professor Amasaki Hiromasa, a world authority on the Japanese garden design and history, who has designed and supervised a number of prestigious gardens including the Japanese Garden of the Kyoto State Guest House.

The topics of the discussion sparked by questions from the engaged and enthusiastic audience members ranged from the definition of the ‘Japanese garden’, tsubo niwa (courtyard gardens) and the Japanese garden as space rather than form, controversial use of the Japanese aesthetic concepts of wabi-sabi for commercial purposes, to how Japanese people utilise all five senses to live in tune with their surrounding nature and how it forms the basis of creating successful gardens. The feedback received from the audience members were overwhelmingly positive and they particularly agreed and felt encouraged by the ideas put forward, namely, Professor Kuitert’s argument that the Japanese garden is alive (a living thing = ikimono) and Professor Watanasbe’s suggestion that a garden could be called a ‘Japanese garden’ if it was a space where one could find peace, or an oasis of one’s mind, for ‘Japan’ is considered to be a country whose culture offers peace of mind and calmness.

The sunset over the Kyoto mountains and then the beautiful moon marked the close of the reception
The sunset over the Kyoto mountains and then the beautiful moon marked
the close of the reception

The discussion continued in a more informal setting at the reception after the event. The reception was held in Rakushinso located at the very top-end of the campus with a spectacular view of Kyoto. We were very fortunate to have Mr Ishibashi Hiroshi, President of the Board of Directors, Ishibashi Foundation, who has kindly attended all three lecture series, at the reception to give a speech and address the supporters of the Sainsbury Institute. We were also blessed by the clear weather to see the amazing sunset over the mountains and then the beautiful moon before we closed the reception.

It certainly was a very memorable event for us. None of this could have been possible without the generous support from the Ishibashi Foundation and the tireless assistance we received from the staff members of the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art and Historical Heritage, for which we are extremely grateful. We will be posting a recording of the lectures on our website in due course and we hope that you will access the content once it is available and judge for yourself if we have been successful in achieving our objectives at this year’s Ishibashi Foundation Lecture Series. Now we are back in the UK, the planning for the next lecture series will start in earnest. So watch this space!

Keiko Nishioka
Development and Research Officer

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