Why I Volunteer: Remembering Our History, Connecting with Nature, Respecting All Beings

Over 100 years old, the Japanese Black Pine ( Pinus thunbergii ) by Aleks Monk

Over 100 years old, the Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii) by Aleks Monk

February 19th of this year was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which interned/incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans, approximately two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.  I’ve continued to think about this horrific injustice -- in part because we’re living in such uncertain times, in a country torn by conflicting attitudes about immigration and towards people many in our country regard as “other.”  This process of remembrance and introspection also brought up the question:  Why do I volunteer in the garden – as a docent, but also in less visible ways?

This February 19th, I attended a showing of Allegiance, a film of the 2015-16 Broadway musical about the internment -- a decade-long project of well-known actor and activist George Takei.  It’s a fictional story, told through music and dance, of Japanese Americans who resisted, as well as those who were interned.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether a musical would really work to tell this story of indefensible incarceration.  But viewing it, I thought that the musical, a quintessentially American art form, worked well to reveal the “Americanness” of the Japanese Americans, to show them as not being "other."  The film wasn't depressing -- I felt both angry and uplifted, in keeping with the story’s injustice and the inspiring spirit its characters.

What does this have to do with the Seattle Japanese Garden?

The historical background – and underlying values -- of our garden are beautifully presented by Kendall H. Brown in his 2013 book, Quiet Beauty:  The Japanese Gardens of North America.  He shows how the Seattle Japanese Garden was made possible, in part, by the Eisenhower administration’s “sister city” program.  Japanese-style gardens were built in the U.S. – including in Seattle and Portland, Oregon -- as civic “friendship gardens.”  In Brown’s estimation, the Seattle Japanese Garden

“is arguably one of the finest in North America. … It was the first major public Japanese garden built on the West Coast after World War II, and its creation inspired a flowering of public gardens from Vancouver to San Diego.”

In fact, in a gesture/gift of peace and goodwill, the Tokyo Metropolitan Park and Green Space Bureau financed the design for our garden, and sent internationally-known landscape architect Juki Iida to supervise its construction.  Of necessity, Iida hired Japanese American landscape contractors to build it -- including Richard Yamasaki, chosen for stone-setting, who had been incarcerated at Minidoka in Idaho.  A Nisei who didn’t speak Japanese, Yamasaki “discussed the project with my brother and my crew and decided to accept, especially since memories of the war had subsided.”  He learned from and forged a relationship with Iida, whom he viewed as a mentor.  Dedicated to Iida’s teachings and to the care and preservation of the garden, he served as a consultant to the garden long after its 1960 opening.

As Yamasaki recounted in 2006, Iida taught that he was creating “a Japanese garden in a foreign setting, but with strict application of certain Japanese principles, such as shizen sa (naturalness) and sono mama no susuma sugata, or the way natural elements age and spread.”

The concept of naturalness, as well as the requirement that a garden be rooted in a sense of place – the country and area where it is built -- are fundamental to the creation of a truly Japanese or Japanese-style garden.  And this quality of naturalness, as well as our garden’s history, is why I became a volunteer in our Seattle Japanese Garden.  Our garden is not simply a manifestation of Japan’s remarkable garden art, with its blending of nature and culture.  In addition, it’s a bridge between Japan and the Pacific Northwest -- reflected in their similarities of geography and respect for nature:

“The sea, the mountains and the forests have shaped both the Japanese and the Northwest mind.  You cannot live, surrounded by this grandeur, and be indifferent to natural forms and textures and the incredible beauty of nature as it is.  To create a garden is to carefully select what you love most from what is around you and to place it and care for it in an almost worshipful way.  In the Northwest as well as Japan, this deep respect for nature has evolved into a similar approach to gardening.” (Akira Takeda, senior aide with the Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle)

The Seattle Japanese Garden also embodies the religions of Japan – including Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism – as multiple layers of meaning, each reflecting a fundamental connection to nature.  For me, this is a connection to all beings, as well as to what we in the West may consider inanimate nature.  As I walk through the garden, I experience a sense of connectedness and peace, and a wish that all beings may be seen and respected, and may live with ease.

Corinne Kennedy is a Garden Guide, frequent contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog, and retired garden designer.