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Rhetorical Landscapes: A Social History of Japanese-Style Gardens in North America

Kendall Brown, California State University, Long Beach, Fellow 2004–2005

Japanese gardens have attained an iconic status in world garden history and in popular culture. Yet, despite their fame and the plethora of publications on them, we still know little about why they were made, how they were utilized, and what they meant for their designers and patrons. Among gardens built in Japanese styles in North America—a group of roughly 350 extant public gardens and perhaps an equal number of historic ones—the problem is even more pronounced. The few popular books on the subject (and pamphlets on individual gardens) place these landscapes under the rubric of Japanese gardens and treat them as a subset of pre-modern gardens in Japan, analyzing them superficially in terms of design typology and general spirituality. As such these gardens are largely divorced from the realms of their own creation and function.

My project conceives of Japanese gardens in America as forming a domain in their own right—a change in status indicated by the term Japanese-style gardens. These gardens belong to American landscape history and, as a kind of hybrid, they challenge easy assumptions about the status of national garden types beyond national borders. Japanese-style gardens can be productively interpreted within the discourse of Orientalism because many are literal and symbolic constructions of Japan by Americans. They connect, for instance, to the collecting of exotic foreign objects among status-conscious elites, to the deployment of ethnic stereotypes at commercial ventures, to the display of cultural diversity by educational institutions, to the fostering of political and economic relationships by governments, and to the longing for tranquility by harried middle-class homeowners. Yet, because many of the earliest and largest gardens were built by the Japanese government at international expositions (and later as sister-city projects), Japanese-style gardens also demonstrate how Japanese presented themselves abroad in ways that suggest a strategic self-Orientalism.

My work at Dumbarton Oaks took two forms. One avenue was research into the facticity of Japanese-style gardens utilizing the collection of books and journals on gardens in America (as well as those of the Library of Congress and at the Smithsonian). The other was reading recent theoretical works on gardens, landscapes, and ethnographic display. The results were the detection of more than a dozen important new historical gardens and, more critically for an art historian accustomed to working on Japanese prints, my discovery of whole domains of inquiry including cultural geography and the anthropology of landscape.