Andrew R. Deane is a teacher and gardener in Tokyo and author of ‘Japanese Gardens Online Handbook.’ In this editorial, he shares his ideas on the appreciation of a Japanese garden as more than a work of art.

Ninomaru, Nijō-jō, Kyōto

The Japanese garden is not an enigma. Instead, it is more like an intricate and beautiful specimen of origami whose secrets cannot be readily plumbed by the casual observer. Just as we can with patience and care learn the folds and tucks that comprise the delicate paper crane, so can we come to understand and appreciate the components of the Japanese garden and understand the ideology and philosophy that underlie its creation. The Japanese garden is not intended to be a riddle but rather a reserved – almost sacred space in which the rootless wanderer may pause from the travails of daily life long enough to place them within perspective.

There is no magic here, simply the fulfillment of an urgent, human need. By placing the human condition against a background that simultaneously clarifies and depersonalizes it, we empower ourselves temporarily to rise above our problems, like a hawk or a deity, to see them, as it were, from a great height. There are many ways to achieve this distance or objectivity, as the sheer diversity of cultures and religions attests, but herein lies the enormous appeal of the oriental garden, especially to the Westerner. It can be had merely by inhabiting a botanical space for an hour or two. It does not require ceremony or a vast repertoire of arcane knowledge, simply the exercise of the five senses. It is here, in this botanical space, that the human spirit reasserts itself, either quietly without ritual or fanfare, or startlingly and unabashedly like the flash of summer lightning. This may, of course, be true of many types of gardens, but it is essential to an understanding of the oriental garden, for in making a distinction between oriental and Japanese gardens, we fall headlong into historical prejudice. The classical Chinese house garden and the early Japanese temple garden share this one fundamental: They are spiritual amplifiers, sounding boxes for the human soul.

The Japanese garden is not merely a work of art, although it does offer most westerners a refreshingly new and highly stylized aesthetic. To insist on this is to reduce it to the status of an object for viewing. To believe that this aesthetic is unique to garden design is myopic, however, for it flows throughout Japanese culture, and through oriental culture in general. It can be seen in both the flapping noren (a curtain bearing the name of the premises) at the entryway of an aka-chōchin (a red lantern bar) and the warp and woof of one of the exquisitely fashioned silk kimono of the late geisha, Ichimaru-san (1906-1997). It is in living well that the Japanese excel, but in living beautifully, and even in poverty there is a vein of national aesthetic awareness. All art, whether we would pretend otherwise, is an attempt at perfection, a marriage of idea and ideal, of message and medium. Although there is much artistry in the Japanese garden, I cannot believe that art is the epitome of aspiration for the great garden designers. For one thing, Japanese designers turn to nature for their inspiration and education. They do not copy nature slavishly, but attempt to extract its quintessence, its “suchness” to use a Zen phrase. Nature becomes the theme of Japanese gardens, and the inspiration derived from it manifests in the principles of design and construction.

A garden – any garden – is, then, a fictional environment, a place resembling or exploiting nature, but not nature per se. If you want a truly natural garden, hike into an area of wilderness that has never known human manipulation and observe: What appears at first to be random or chaotic resolves itself after closer analysis into an intricate codependent amalgamation of flora, fauna and other less visible kingdoms, balanced by objective natural selection and recycled by the meteorological elements. The words of the great ikebana master Kawase Toshiro, as quoted by Alex Kerr, explain this difference best: “‘Showing something natural, in its native state, is not art. Artifice piled on artifice, giving you the illusion of the natural – that’s art. If you are going to draw people into your dream, then you must make it completely convincing. If the dream is not perfect, then it will feel unnatural. Only the most perfect dream approaches reality’.” 2

Rikugi-en, Tokyo

A garden is by nature an artificial environment freed through human manipulation from the brutal efficiency of nature. Donald Richie expresses this tension superbly in his essay “The Presentational Urge as Theatre”:

Nature has been presented. Tidied up, stylized, it has been made, as the old garden manuals have it, to express nature better than nature does itself. It is presumed that the integrity of any original does not exist. As in any dramatic presentation the only integrity is that of performance. 3

The garden designers of Japan may well have had formal training in the fine arts, but art here is a tool and not the Grail itself. Certainly, there are formalized coda and traditions that can be recognized, read and categorized, but here again, their existence is a matter of necessity not import. The gardeners must somehow maintain a balance between wild nature and contrived nature, between natural beauty and artifice. That symbols as well as paper and ink are required to write a book does not distract the reader from the purport of what is written, although when artistry is used to present ideas, the reader must be astute enough to appreciate the enhancement. In this way the adage that the medium is the message takes breath.

Understanding the Japanese garden does not require expertise, but it does demand action. In the same way that learning anything requires effort and nominal degrees of intelligence and experience, so learning the coda and traditions of the Japanese garden demand an outlay of time and a moiety of determination or perseverance. Although a fictional realm of artificially-influenced nature, the garden nonetheless exhibits a number of realities. As with all fine arts, it exposes certain truths about the human condition. Preston L. Houser puts it this way in the “Foreword” to Marc Keane’s Japanese Garden Design: “Like literary characters, gardens speak to us but in a language of image: oceans, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, turtles, cranes. Garden designers manipulate these cultural emblems to create a three-dimensional [living] sculpture.”4 This sculpture can be decoded and simplified. As Lennox Tierney points out, “A Japanese Garden is a representation of the universe and its elements – fire in the form of a stone or iron lantern, earth in the form of stone, and water, air, plant, and animal life in their true forms.”5

Even so, it is possible to appreciate a Japanese garden without any formal education as it is also possible to appreciate a Dickens novel without a university degree or a Monet painting without training in media and technique. Indeed, there are theorists who claim that formal education becomes a liability as it limits or precludes refreshingly-personal approaches to its subjects. But before education can begin, a person must first master the rudiments of communication. If you cannot read, you must rely upon those who read for you. Once you have mastered the basics, your vocabulary will expand as required. Not surprisingly, then, the more gardens you visit, and the more comfortable you are with incumbent terminology, the easier it will become to read and enjoy them.

The Japanese garden is not a finished work, complete and independent. Since the primary media are subject to time, the elements and the cycles of nature, the garden is in a state of perpetual flux. It cannot be frozen, only captured momentarily by the observer. What is seen is merely a combination of the physics of time and matter and the limitations of the observer. While the underlying design of the garden may be relatively stable, the flux of nature and the cycle of the seasons assures that what is seen today will never be exactly the same tomorrow. The play of the wind, the charge of precipitation, the chase of the clouds and the slant of sunlight through foliage can never be duplicated. Maintenance on a regular and prolonged schedule also adds in a minuscule way to the patina and idiosyncrasies of a garden. The garden, then, is a living entity whose rhythms and manifestations may well be too subtle for most of us to appreciate. Herein lies one of the principal appeals of gardens in general.

The specific design of a Japanese garden is not the work of a single human being. All artists betray their influences no matter how original they appear to be. This is not a revolutionary axiom, and much has been written about the creative processes in relation to integrity and originality. Suffice it to say that while the basic layout of a garden may well be the work of a single hand, the ideas and philosophies that gave birth to that layout are cumulative and divers, and furthermore, the construction, care and maintenance of the initial design are the toil of numerous hands, some of which remain forever unseen and unappreciated. One should not overlook, for example, the role of nature in all this. Preston Houser reminds us that “gardens are more like poetic epics than novels in that many successive generations of designers and artisans have contributed to the garden’s composition. Like the Bible, The Odyssey, or The Mahabharata, the Japanese garden is a distillation of many hands and hearts spanning many generations.”6

Koishikawa-kōraku-en, Tokyo

Let us revisit a truism of aesthetics for one moment to remind ourselves of the evolution of all forms of art. Generally speaking, there are said to be three stages in any significant movement. To paraphrase Alex Kerr, these are the initial or early stage, which is characterized by strength and simplicity, the middle or classical stage, when all elements attain maturity and harmony, and finally the decadent or baroque stage, in which elements become distorted, elaborate or decadent.7 The successive manifestations of the Japanese garden were also susceptible to this proclivity, and therefore we encounter pure forms as well as mutations. More often, though, we encounter the vigorous ambient debates, and here lies one of the benefits of being gaikokujin (literally, “other-country people”): We are forgiven our ignorance and our personal tastes are readily indulged! And this is a good thing because although informed taste is important in understanding art, it must never be permitted to supercede instinctual preference.

We should remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a typical Japanese garden. That each follows on a tradition that may be literally thousands of years old; that each rises from the foundations of essential building blocks (water, rock and flora, or their symbolic representation); that each illustrates time-honored ideologies and cumulative conventions; and that each seeks to create an “other space” few will deny. But to say that there exists a definitive version of a particular category of garden is to deny these gardens the flux that is essential to their purpose. No garden is merely the sum of its materials, no more than a symphony can be said to reflect only the notes with which it was composed. Certainly, the purposes for which specific gardens were created reflect the major artistic and cultural trends dominant at the time of their design and construction. But the reason we return again and again to their confines, that we invest so much effort to their maintenance and comprehension, is that we recognize the importance of maintaining a connection between ourselves and nature. As Marc Keane puts it, “Gardens are an expression of our relationship to the natural world.”8

Finally, allow me to add a plea: Enjoying a garden should be undertaken in the correct spirit. Maintain the wonderful curiosity of a child, and temper each visit with a genuine desire to learn something new – either about the garden or about yourself. David Slawson reminds us that “The Japanese have long believed that going to gardens and quietly observing them – letting their special qualities sink in – is one of the most effective ways of learning the art.”9 The Nihon-shoki (Japanese Chronicles, 720 CE) has much to teach us concerning the landscapes that surround us: During the fabulous Age of Gods, the trees and grasses could speak. And people had the power to listen.

1 Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. [115].

2 Kerr, A. (1996). Lost Japan. Melbourne: Lonely Planet; p. 256.

3 Richie, D. (1995). Partial views. Tokyo: Japan Times; p.34.

4 Houser, P. L. “Foreword.” In Keane, M. P. (1996); p. xi.

5 Tierney, L. “The Nature of Japanese Garden Art.” Retrieved March 6, 2012 from

6 Houser, P. L.; ibid.

7 Kerr, A. (1996); p. 196.

8 Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 5.

9 Slawson, D. (1991). Secret teachings in the art of Japanese gardens: Design principles, aesthetic values. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International Ltd.; p. 41.

Andrew R. Deane, a teacher and gardener in Tokyo and author of ‘Japanese Gardens Online Handbook’ shares his perceptions of Japanese gardens.