What Makes A Garden Japanese?

– Posted in: Garden Visits

Written by Jill Sinclair

Alot of GGW readers already know Jill from her popular blog, Landscape Lover, where she gives her personal take on parks and gardens in Paris and further afield. Jill is a British landscape historian, trained in the US and London, and currently living in Paris. Her particular interest is the changing meaning and value of historic places. In 2009, the MIT Press published her first book, Fresh Pond, which explored the shifting significance of a site in Massachusetts. She also contributes regularly to a range of peer-reviewed journals and popular websites, and gives lectures and guided tours on the history and associations of particular landscapes. I’m a big fan of Jill and Landscape Lover….if you haven’t yet read  it, check it out. Fran Sorin

What makes a garden Japanese?

When asked by a client to design her a Japanese garden, landscape architect James Rose replied: “Sure – whereabouts in Japan?”
Yet many gardens around the world are confidently described as Japanese. Indeed, James Rose’s own home and gardens at Ridgewood in New Jersey, which I visited a few years ago, were clearly influenced by his great love of Japanese gardens, even though he baulked at anyone describing them as such.

James Rose garden

Here in Paris we have several beautiful sites which are known as Japanese gardens. Just to the west of the city are the wonderful grounds of the musée Albert Kahn. Originally created by a French banker and philanthropist in the early twentieth century, the museum’s surroundings include a traditional Japanese garden, with lanterns, temples, a tea house, carefully placed rocks and clipped shrubs, all explored on winding stone paths.

Kahn trad garden

In 1989 part of it was replaced by a contemporary Japanese garden, created by landscape architect Fumiaki Takano, who is known for his work on children’s playgrounds and parks. The contemporary garden is easily the most popular part of the museum’s grounds, especially at this time of year when flowering is at its peak. Every day it is full of visitors enjoying the water features, Japanese plants (azaleas, maples, irises, willows, rodgersias, pines), the pathways and stepping stones, the textured pebbles, the red painted bridges; indeed all the features that people in the West associate with Japanese gardens. 

Kahn new garden 1

Kahn new garden 2 

Kahn new garden 3

Kahn new garden 4

Kahn new garden 5

Yet one expert on Japanese art has told me that he dislikes the new garden, believing it has too much concrete to be authentic, and that he preferred the slightly disheveled traditional garden that was there before. Another scholar has rather dismissively described the new garden as a “confection.”

Kahn new garden 6

Kahn new garden 7

Kahn new garden 8

A second Japanese-style garden can be found in Paris at the UNESCO headquarters. The peace garden (jardin de la paix) was designed in the late 1950s by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. It contains features commonly associated with Japanese gardens, such as cherry blossom, pools and streams, stone bridges and sculptures, and a place for tea ceremonies. But Noguchi also deliberately introduced more Western elements, including contoured surfaces, extensive amounts of concrete, a stage or viewing platform that allows visitors to see the whole garden at one time, and a design that bears the strong personal imprint of its creator.



This mixture of Eastern tradition and Western modernism led to complaints that the garden was too showy (to Japanese eyes) or conversely too austere (for Europeans). Some denounced it as almost a caricature of Japanese style: American sculptor Alexander Calder famously refused to have one of his works placed within the peace garden for fear that Noguchi “would probably cover the base with powdered sugar and call it Fujiyama.” Yet today such criticisms are to a large extent forgotten, and Noguchi’s design is widely accepted as an iconic example of a Japanese stroll garden.



At a time when our sympathies remain with those suffering the effects of the recent earthquake in Japan, gardeners’ thoughts readily turn to the enormous influence that the country has had on Western design. And yet how far do we in the West really appreciate the subtleties and symbolism of Japanese gardens? Are we too ready to describe a patch of raked gravel and a stone lantern as Japanese? On the other hand, can a garden in the West perhaps count as Japanese if it was designed by someone with links to Japan (as were the two Paris examples)? Or was James Rose right that the location is all that matters – if it’s not in Japan, it’s not a Japanese garden?

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
10 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Sunita June 8, 2011, 4:59 am

It is so easy to cobble together 2-3 elements from a particular style and label it as such. It takes a discerning eye to sift the layers and search for the spirit but not everyone is blessed with that.

Sunita, thanks for the comment. I like your choice of the word “spirit” – it often seems to me that too much time is spent, when creating or restoring gardens, simply looking at physical features, rather than trying to identify or create the spirit or essence of the place. Jill

Stan @ Bench Reviews June 8, 2011, 6:44 am

Interesting question, and I like James Rose’s response, “Where in Japan?”

But for me, I am more concerned with the style than if it is a “true” Japanese garden. If it has style elements that have originated in Japan, I enjoy those features rather than concern myself with the question of whether or not it is really a Japanese garden.

That is the awesome thing about gardening. You can combine different styles and features, and make the garden intensely personal. After all, the creator derives the most satisfaction from his work.

Stan Horst
Publisher: BetterBenches.com

Stan, your comment reminds me of the T.S. Eliot remark about immature poets imitating, while mature poets steal. I agree that it is much more satisfying to take ideas and make them your own, rather than just baldly to copy elements from elsewhere. Jill

Adam June 9, 2011, 3:35 am

Does this question also apply to gardens from other origins? We see descriptions of ‘jardins à l’anglaise’ very often in France too, but is it possible to have an English garden outside England, or are Japanese gardens somehow more sacred and representative of their local culture?

Adam, great question! I wonder if Japanese gardens have taken on a particular mystique in the West because of their frequent links with religion and contemplation? But of course the same issues arise with Italian gardens outside of Italy, English gardens outside of England, etc. The French jardin à l’anglaise is a good example – it is a style all its own, easily recognisable, but arguably with no more than a passing reference to actual English gardens. And then of course, as a Brit, you start thinking ‘what IS an English garden anyway?’ – there are so many different kinds of gardens in England. The same must be true for Japan. Jill

Chookie June 9, 2011, 4:05 am

I tend to agree with James Rose. I saw numerous gardens in Japan some years ago, and I think even the best ‘Japanese’ gardens elsewhere lack something. The something might be a lack of understanding of the philosophies that lie behind the ‘real’ gardens (replacing it with featurism), but there’s also the difference caused by climate, soil etc. Japanese gardens in Sydney, for example, don’t have the mosses you see in Japan or even the same proportion of local mosses: our climate isn’t cool and wet.

Chookie, that’s a good point. Even if we understand the essence of a particular garden style, it may not be possible to reproduce it in different weather conditions, or with different flora and fauna (that’s Cameron’s point too, below). And of course there is always the light, which varies so much from place to place. Jill

cameron (Defining Your Home) June 9, 2011, 8:49 pm

Beetles? Just kidding!

The gardens in the photo are quite lovely indeed.

I like the peaceful ambiance of Japanese-inspired gardens. My favorite is at Huntington in Pasadena, CA.

Cameron, thanks for the recommendation. I don’t know the Huntingdon Library garden, but see from its website that it has just closed for a year-long renovation programme and will reopen next Spring. I’ll add it to my list of places to visit. Jill

Cathy June 12, 2011, 6:20 am

If Ms. Sinclair intended for us to ponder, ponder, ponder on this query, she succeeded!

Maybe it’s because we toured the Rose Center, maybe it’s because I love the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, maybe it’s because so many of the beds in our own gardens are influence by the English and Japanese, or maybe it’s just because she makes an excellent point, I’m not entirely sure, but I thought about it so much this week that what started out as a comment here ended up being far too long to post as a comment and evolved into a rather lengthy blog post all its own about her post.

What makes a garden Japanese, or English, or cottage? I thought I knew (I certainly have enough books and done enough reading). Now I’m not so sure.

The question she asks underscores a much larger issue about authenticity and style, and my sense is that there is no easy, quick answer.

While I will continue to refer to various beds in our garden by the ethnic or cultural influence that inspired them, I am at least sensitized to the fact that many people may disagree with us – and that’s okay.

I don’t know if it’s okay to put a link here to my musings on her question, but if so, you can read the long version here: http://thewiedersgarden.blogspot.com/2011/06/musings-japanese-garden-or-not.html If not, the moderator is welcome to delete this link.

Cathy, thank you so much for this comment! I am delighted that my post made you ponder on the issues I raised, and was fascinated by the piece you wrote in response on your blog. The original inspiration for my post was a recent symposium at the UPenn School of Design called Foreign Trends on American Soil, where a number of us presented papers exploring how garden styles from abroad have been adapted to the US. The symposium organiser hopes to publish the papers in book form, so if you are interested in the topic, you might keep an eye out for the forthcoming publication! Jill

Jan June 13, 2011, 3:38 pm

I love Calder’s peevish quote! Maybe he didn’t want to support a rival artist? Ironic that he didn’t offer a sculptural olive branch in a peace garden.

Jan, yes, I read that Calder and Noguchi had rather fallen out, as Noguchi persuaded UNESCO to let him create the peace garden on a site originally earmarked for a Calder sculpture. So Calder’s sarcasm was fuelled by disappointment and perhaps professional jealousy. Jill

Hoover Boo June 14, 2011, 12:02 am

No one has mentioned climate. You could completely duplicate a Japanese garden in say San Diego, and it would not be the same because the climate is so different. It would smell different, the plants would grow differently, it would have a different feel. You could duplicate everything else, but you can’t duplicate climate. Seattle would be closer in weather conditions than San Diego, but it would still not be the same. San Diego’s “English” gardens as well–they are mere replicas.

We spend so much time indoors or in human-made urbanscapes that we, even gardeners, have our sensitivity to the outdoors.

Hoover Boo, thanks for the comment. Chookie (above) made the point that moss simply won’t grow the same way in Sydney as it will in Japan. I like your addition of more intangible things that change with climate, like smell and feel. Jill

Noel Kingsbury June 18, 2011, 10:39 am

What makes a garden Japanese?
A £49.99 concrete lantern, a pile of rock, bag or two of gravel, some dwarf conifers, and some New Zealand carex. Simple, innit? And if you are really up for it, some lettering you’ve copied off the menu of the Chinese take-away on the corner.
That’s what it seems to amount to here.
I did actually run a conference a few years ago, with a session on ‘How to make a Japanese garden without cliches’ but i am not sure that the question ever really got answered. Never having been to Japan (yet) my favourite ‘JApanese garden’ is the one designed by Sven Ingvar Andersson and a Japanese student of his in the Spa Park in Ronneby, Sweden. All native southern Swedish plants, a gravel river, the local rocks, it seemed to capture something of the Japanese aesthetic but be utterly of its place too. I loved, it and even wrote it up for Gardens Illustrated. I took loads of pics, and showed them to a Japanese friend; she responded by bursting into contemptuous laughter.

Noel, thanks for the comment, and the amusing tale about the Ronneby Spa Park. I understand that Andersson’s Japanese garden has been controversial in a number of ways, from being perceived as an inappropriate addition to a historical landscape, to the later introduction of Japanese bamboo in a garden the designer had intended to be planted with entirely native flora. Ronneby is a great example of some of the issues I was trying to raise in this post. Jill

James December 3, 2018, 11:23 am

Personally I don’t mind the use of concrete, I love the fresh green look of grass but i don’t have the time or effort needed to upkeep the grass. I have a lot of concrete in my garden and I still feel it looks authentic enough to me. All about personal taste!

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