The initial movement to create a Japanese Garden in Seattle began in 1909, when the Alaska Yukon Exhibition was held. A Japanese Pavilion with an accompanying garden was built for the fair, which ignited regional interest in and excitement about Japanese gardens. In 1924, the Olmstead Brothers designed the University of Washington Arboretum, and by 1937, officials agreed that the Arboretum needed a Japanese Garden. The realization of the garden, however, had to wait till the end of the World War II, when racial and political tensions eased. It wasn't until 1957 that The Arboretum Foundation began raising funds for the creation of the Japanese Garden. The Foundation asked Tatsuo Moriwaki of Tokyo Metro Parks to help guide the process. He selected Kiyoshi Inoshita and Juki Iida to design the project.
The design was completed in 1959. Under the supervision of Juki Iida and Nobumasa Kitamura, construction began in March 1960 and was completed on an accelerated schedule within four months. Juki Iida personally scouted and selected 580 large granite rocks (some of them boulders) from the nearby Snoqualmi Pass to insert in the garden. Since the construction of the garden was originally envisioned to require three years, the execution required a number of revisions and changes in design throughout the garden. The construction was done mostly by local Japanese-American gardeners. This was the first time, however, that heavy construction equipment was employed in building a Japanese garden by Juki Iida and his staff.
Built in 1959, the Seattle Japanese Garden was the earliest postwar public construction of a Japanese-style garden on the Pacific Coast, and thus has had a strong influence on the design on Japanese gardens throughout the region.