Juki Iida & Richard Yamasaki: Collaborating in Space & Time

Juki Iidain Seattle Japanese Garden
Juki Iidain Seattle Japanese Garden

Shizen sa, naturalness, was an important design principal for Seattle Japanese Garden lead designer Juki Iida. His student, Richard Yamasaki, followed shizen sa with great duty, influencing the Japanese garden for decades to come.

The Seattle Japanese Garden was a collaborative work that involved a number of Japanese design team members. It was also, as this article examines, a unique collaboration between lead designer Juki Iida, and Richard Yamasaki, one of the Seattle landscape contractors hired to build it. Creating a Japanese Garden in Seattle was first discussed in the early years of the 20th century, but it did not become a reality until after World War II -- long after the 1934 foundation of the Washington Park Arboretum. In 1957, the Arboretum Foundation began the project of fundraising, aided immeasurably by a generous gift from the city of Tokyo. The garden’s design, and supervision of its installation, was donated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park and Green Space Bureau, headed by Tatsuo Moriwaki. In consultation with Kiyoshi Inoshita, head of the Japan Institute of Landscape Architects, he chose Juki (also spelled Juuki) Iida to oversee the garden’s creation. Iida was an internationally-known landscape architect who had created many naturalistic gardens in Japan and throughout the world. In 1959, under Inoshita’s guidance, Iida and Tokyo Park Bureau associates drafted the plans for a Momoyama-style stroll garden. Work began after Iida’s initial visit in late 1959. He returned in March 1960, and with Nobumasa Kitamura’s assistance, Iida personally supervised the garden’s completion in just three months’ time.

Iida (1889-1977) had opened his gardening business in 1918. He was skilled in the arts of ikebana, bonsai and calligraphy, as well as garden design. After employment as a young man cutting down trees to make way for development, he understood the importance of preserving & restoring woodlands.2 He owned his own stone quarry, and employed craftsmen in the creation of stone lanterns. He also operated retail nurseries located on department store roofs. Iida created more than 1000 gardens, and was honored by the Emperor of Japan for his work.3 Most were residential gardens in Japan, and because of the pressures of development, have not survived. Even his own Tokyo residence, which his grandson lived in until recently, is no longer extant. The Seattle Japanese Garden, the only garden that remains, is a “very rare and precious example of Mr. Iida’s work.” 4 The original 1959-1960 documents make no mention of gardens in Japan that may have influenced our garden’s design, but research by Professor Makoto Suzuki of Tokyo Agricultural University suggests that the following gardens may have been influential: Horai En Garden in Tokyo, built in the Edo Period (1603-1863) and Katsura Imperial Village in Kyoto, built in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1603).

In Professor Suzuki‘s analysis, Iida was responsible for the naturalistic and informal southern portion of the garden. This portion includes the mountain/woodland area, with its conifers, Japanese maples and other understory plants. The waterfall and 11-tier stone pagoda, which represents an ancient monastery, are here. Nearby is the teahouse, with its inner and outer gardens (roji). The green naturalness of the roji, with its luminous carpet of moss, contributes to the quietude and simplicity we experience there. In contrast, the northern portion of the garden includes the harbor town/ boat landing at that end of the lake, and is more typical of a Momoyama-style stroll garden. It’s more open & more formal in its design, and is probably the work of Kiyoshi Inoshita, rather than Juki Iida. Iida was unfamiliar with local contractors, but it was essential that he choose the companies hired to build the garden. Fortunately, he was assisted by Kenneth Sorrells (Chairman of the Japanese Garden Committee) and James Fukuda (a bilingual staff member of the Japanese Consulate who was instrumental in fostering communication & cooperation among the garden’s builders), who took him to Seattle gardens where he could view examples of their work. Iida’s decisions were fortuitous: he chose William Yorozu for planting, Kei Ishimitsu for structures, and Richard Yamasaki for stone setting.

The relationship with Richard Yamasaki was particularly significant. While in Seattle to create the garden, Iida painted a large scroll of trees, water and rocks, expressing his understanding of the essence of a Japanese garden. After the garden opening, he gave the scroll to Yamasaki, who later donated it to the Elisabeth C. Miller Horticulture Library, as a gift to posterity. The following remarks, taken from what Yamasaki said at the Scroll Dedication Ceremony, provide insight into the relationship between, and values of, both men: “Being Nisei, a second-generation Japanese born in America, I knew very little about Japanese gardens. I discussed the project with my brother and my crew and decided to accept, especially since memories of the war had subsided.

My education on Japanese gardens began then. Iida would call me over, ask me to sit by him and listen to his views on what this Seattle garden would be like. Because of the language barrier, I could not ask questions in Japanese, so I just listened and watched. In the evenings he would expand more on his vision of the garden. There were two things that drew me to Iida sensei, and he became a mentor to me. First, he continued to help me see what he was creating, a Japanese garden in a foreign setting, but with strict application of certain Japanese principles, such as shi zen sa (naturalness) and so no mama no susumu sugata, or the way natural elements age and spread. Second, he was willing to listen as I took him to places like Moses Lake and the North Cascades as I explained what the Japanese who left Japan and settled in the Seattle area had accomplished.

Since Iida sensei’s stay was so short, he invited me to see him in Tokyo, which I did in 1967, when my father who lived in Okayama fell ill with a stroke. Iida sensei sent a car for me and took me to see gardens around Tokyo. This visit left me with deep and lasting memories and a lifelong desire to study and understand his teachings.” 5


Richard Yamasaki (1921-2008) had taken over his father’s landscape business after World War II. He contributed to many gardens throughout our region, including the garden at Bloedel Reserve. He also worked for the Seattle Parks Department as a consultant to the Seattle Japanese Garden. In 1993, after his retirement, he donated a venerable Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii) to the garden. Planted by his father at their family residence, and pruned carefully each year by father and then son, it has established well at the south end of the garden, above the harbor village. It’s now over 100 years old.

Additional contributions by Yamasaki have come to light more recently. The garden’s original entrance had been on its east side, where the Emperor’s Gate still stands, but was moved to its current, southern location about a year after the garden’s opening. In addition, the original plan ended at the area near the WPA stone bridge and large Kasuga lantern, but this was not followed. The garden was extended further south, in harmony with the naturalistic design of the mountain/woodland/waterfall area. According to Seattle landscape architect Koichi Kobayashi, this area was completed after the garden opened – probably in 1961, and supervised by Richard Yamasaki. The area includes a powerful rock arrangement, past the entrance gate & near the large weeping Japanese maple on the left side of the path. It’s not typical of rock arrangements in other Iida gardens or within the Seattle Japanese Garden. Kobayashi was only recently able to verify that this arrangement was designed and placed by Yamasaki.6

Juki Iida returned to Seattle in 1973, and was dismayed by the condition of the garden. It was overgrown, and pruning had been done improperly. He held a meeting to instruct Arboretum and community members in proper pruning techniques and guidelines for managing the garden, and worked with them to accomplish what he could during his visit. He emphasized to them, and to his student Richard Yamasaki, “No matter how beautifully a garden is designed, all is lost without proper and timely care.” Many elements in the history of the Seattle Japanese Garden will undoubtedly remain unknown, but it’s exciting when a piece of the puzzle is added, and our understanding is clarified. Fortunately, we’ve continued to learn about the collaboration, over time, between Juki Iida and Richard Yamasaki. The latter, a Nisei who didn’t speak Japanese, learned from and forged a relationship with Iida, then dedicated himself to Iida’s teachings and to the care and preservation of the garden. After retiring, he donated his father’s ancient Black Pine to the garden, and later he donated to the Miller Library the scroll that Iida had entrusted to him so long ago. The legacy of both men, and their collaboration, endures.

1 Kendall H. Brown, Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America, 2013. 2 Julie Coryell, “A Chronology for the Life of Juuki Iida,” Elisabeth C. Miller Library website. 3 Kenneth Sorrells, “Juki Iida (1889-1977), Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Vol. 40, No. 4 (1977), p. 13. 4 Hiroko Aikawa (Seattle Japanese Garden Docent), personal communication, 2015. 5 Richard Yamasaki, “Remembering Juuki Iida: Dedication Ceremony Remarks,” Elisabeth C. Miller Library website. 6 Koichi Kobayashi, “Welcome Rock Arrangement by Dick Yamasaki,” Seattle Japanese Garden Community Blog, March 3, 2016.

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