The Healing Power of Japanese Gardens: “Stone Gardens” in the Japanese American Internment Camps

Heron in Green

Japanese Americans in forced relocation showed their courage and preserved their cultural heritage through the creation of gardens. 

Pool in "Pleasure Park" Manzanita Relocation Center, California.  Photography by Ansel Adams, source Library of Congress. 

Two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which mandated the internment of Japanese Americans, primarily the 120,000 civilians living in the “exclusion zone” (all of Oregon, California, western Washington and southern Arizona). They were removed from their homes to 10 relocation camps, most located in remote areas of the Western U.S. After the war, public opinion gradually changed, this violation of civil liberties was acknowledged, and reparations were finally, in 1988, enacted into law. However, the realities of life in the camps, and the courage, resistance, and creativity of their inhabitants, are still not widely known. “Stone Gardens: Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1945” tells the story of the gardens that were created. It’s one chapter in the fascinating 2006 book Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, by Kenneth Helphand.

Roosevelt’s Executive Order created the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which forced the Japanese Americans to sell or abandon their homes & businesses -- quickly, and at a loss -- and to move to temporary assembly camps while the internment camps were being built. Most of the Japanese Americans in Western Washington were sent to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, labeled “Camp Harmony” by the WRA, and from there to Minidoka Camp in Hunt, Idaho.

All of the camps were laid out on a military model, but their fences and guard towers revealed these “instant cities” to be prison camps. They ranged in size from 7,000 to nearly 19,000 inhabitants. The 8 Western camps were located in deserts, and were “dusty, wind-blown sites, devoid of vegetation, unbearably hot in the summer, and frigid in the winter.” At Minidoka, this was in stark contrast to the temperate climate and green vegetation of the coastal areas from which the residents had come.

Despite their loss of liberty and their demoralizing surroundings, the internees worked relentlessly to transform their reality into livable environments. They used whatever scrap materials could be found to build partitions and furniture, and create spaces for community needs – worship, meetings, classrooms, libraries, etc. They also transformed the landscape, planting victory gardens and constructing playgrounds, baseball diamonds and facilities for other sports. The camps included orchards and large farms, which produced food for the residents, but the residents themselves created community parks and gardens throughout each camp – at the entries to each barracks and the mess halls, and in open spaces, such as between barracks and in firebreaks.

Gardens were an important part of the residents’ professional and cultural experience. Many had worked in agriculture or as gardeners, and gardens were an essential part of their cultural heritage. As detailed in Defiant Gardens:

“Entry gardens were part of the Japanese tradition of dooryard gardens, linking household to community, and function as entry and marker, displaying the craft and skill of the resident and embellishing both the barracks and the community space. Barracks gardens displayed great variety, using gathered cacti and rocks, transplanted plants, and plants propagated in the camp nursery. Water features were especially welcome in the arid landscapes. Ponds are essential in traditional Japanese design, but fountains were new elements, part of a still-evolving Japanese American design style. There was an imaginatively wide array of found and scrounged materials, including tin cans, pebbles, bottle caps, and glass. Many persons inscribed their names in cement at the doorstep. Henry Nishi referred to what the internees accomplished as ‘crude landscaping,’ but in fact it was often very sophisticated. While people waited daily for the communally served meals at the mess hall, they enjoyed the elaborate displays of great artistry and effort that characterized the mess-hall gardens. Created with rocks and water as well as plants, these gardens were most closely identified with the Japanese American garden tradition. All these gardens brought beauty to the camps and reinforced the internees’ sense of cultural identity…

As artistic and cultural expressions, the internment camp gardens were rich in meaning. They combined aspects of classic Japanese garden practice, the Japanese American garden traditions that had evolved in the prewar West Coast, with responses to the conditions at each camp… Gardens provide a way to domesticate space. Evacuees took the empty WRA framework and filled it to make it into their homes, the domestic environment where personal and family lives were enacted. Control over one’s environment is not just over space; it also implies the ability to control one’s social and psychological environment. Garden making (and other forms of construction in the camps) was a way of taking possession through labor, design, creativity, use, and cultural signification. For people who had just been dispossessed of their homes, belongings, careers, and daily lives, this was particularly important. The tangible physical result was a form of communication – we did this, and this is who we are.”

When the war ended and the camps were emptied, the reality for many of the internees was bleak – they were unable to recover their properties, professions and former lives. On the other hand, some came back to make significant contributions to horticulture in general and Japanese style gardening in particular. Among these were Richard Yamasaki, who worked under Juki Iida in the creation of the Seattle Japanese Garden and who donated the 100-year-old Japanese Black Pine to the Garden, and Fujitaro Kubota, whose nursery became Kubota Gardens. Although the history of the camp gardens is not well known, that history of fortitude and creativity underlies the post-war period, and the multitude of Japanese style gardens, large and small, that have been created since 1945.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.