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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Volume 24, Number 3
July 1970

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The Japanese and their Gardens
Dr. T. M. Taylor,
Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Botany
University of British Columbia

        At this time when almost any reference to the environment is prompted by pollution and man's degradation of his surroundings I would like to introduce a different note. At one stage the Program Committee suggested that I talk to you on 'Man and his Environment in Japan'. This however, is much too broad a topic to be treated in the time allowed to me and in any case I have no qualifications that would justify my developing such a theme. One knows that problems of pollution are just as acute in Japan as they are on this continent. One knows that an aroused populace is stimulating politicians and all levels of government into constructive and remedial action. One also knows that litterbugs are just as numerous and just as defiling to the landscape as they are with us. It is the latter group, who contribute directly to pollutions as individuals at the personal level, which is so paradoxical. In their homes and gardens their cultural heritage is honored and is still their way of life; time-tested traditions and attitudes prevail, simplicity and artistry characterize even the humblest homes and the smallest garden reflects in refined microcosm a legacy that has been accumulating for a thousand years. It is some aspects of this legacy that I would like to discuss with you, i.e. the Japanese in the environment of their gardens, so even amending slightly the title in the program.
        A traveler arriving in Japan is struck by the scenery, its delicacy and softness. Nature had been very kind. Even the mountains have a roundness of contour that is much more relaxing than the harsh spikes that one finds so much in our western mountains. The latter are beautiful, stimulating and awesome but scarcely provocative of quiet contemplation. Kyoto and the Kansai plain, the cultural heartland of Japan, is a region of moderation, of a soft climate, one story buildings and small fields - all in human scale where man neither dominates nor is dwarfed; where he is an intrinsic part of nature, so special qualities of the landscape are reflected in his gardens, For example, water is a particularly important element. The presence of water reminds him that he is a member of an island nation that for centuries has relied on water for its well-being. In his garden it arouses emotions of stillness and peace.
        In ancient pantheistic times certain areas were held in reverence as being the home of a god. Certain mountains were worshipped as deities, the so-called "most sacred site of the god" and the "subordinate site" were mainly natural stones. A simple altar and stone path would be the work of man who believed the god would thus descend to the spot. The arrangement of stones became the prototype of some of the stone gardens of later years.
        There is probably no nation that loves its gardens with the single-mindedness of the Japanese. Each must have his garden. even though it be no larger than a mat, to remind him of nature and the unity of natural things. In Japan it is often hard to draw the line between a garden and the surrounding landscape. In fact one can go further and say that landscape, architecture and nature can scarcely be separated from one another. Together they overcome the distinction between artificiality and nature and so are supplemental. Architecture and gardens are melted together by their common denominator which is nature, the result is an aesthetic and functional whole. Living close to, and being a part of, nature is the very essence of Japanese living. 
        Gardening art has had a long evolution in Japan. Up until the 12th Century the Chinese influence predominated with gaudy, highly stylized results. The rise of Buddhism, particularly of the Zen sect, initiated a new trend in gardening that soon overcame the Chinese influence almost entirely so that by the 13th Century an occasional stone pagoda is about all that was left of it. Despite differences in form and style certain fundamental characteristics are apparent. As I mentioned a moment ago it was the Zen sect that made the greatest impression in profoundly changing the style of Japanese gardens. It was from this sect that there emerged the spiritual concept of man's partnership with nature.
        Partnership, and detailed familiarity with nature, made several artistic truths apparent to the Japanese artist designer. He was struck by the over­all asymmetry of nature, although in detail its symmetry was very striking. This became a principle of design. In The Book of Tea (1906) Okakura called his country's art the "abode of the unsymmetrical." According to Zen philosophy true beauty can only be discovered by one who completes the incomplete. It is left to each to complete in imagination the total effect in relation to himself. The art of the Far East has avoided bilateral symmetry as not only being completion but repetition.
        In addition to the principle of asymmetry the Japanese garden-artist depends on the elements of line, texture and form, rather than colour, to produce his design. He selects out of nature that which he feels is most pertinent for the composition he has in mind. He selects for timelessness and solidity - rocks, gravel, sand, evergreen trees and shrubs. The artistic effect changes little with the seasons as the prevailing colors are green, greys and browns - all in low key so that the result is almost a monochrome. Other colors when they appear are ephemeral and are only grace notes in the symphony. At any season of the year, except when actually under snow, one can go into a Japanese garden and become a part of it; one can go back again and again to study details much as one can a painting in a gallery. It is essentially static with little of the seasonal drama we find in Western gardens.
        Yet another principle is basic to Japanese garden design. Its importance is attested to by the fact that it was formulated in Taoist teachings over 2000 years ago. It is the principles of opposites, the Yin and the Yang. male and female, light and dark. building up and breaking down, and so forth. In the garden, plants, as they show active vibrant growth, are considered to represent the male element; rocks and stones that ultimately decompose to form soil are female - perhaps akin to the Western idea of mother earth. In nature there is a balance between these opposites, when it is lacking we are disturbed. The Japanese garden-artist tries to arrive at such a balance with plants and rocks together in harmonious accord.
        As much of the philosophy of Japanese garden design is derived from Buddhism and Shintoism and was translated into practical garden planning by a number of famous Buddhist priests nearly 1000 years ago it is not surprising to find certain conventional forms used which are symbols in these two great religions. For example, the triangle, circle and rectangle are taken to be abstractions symbolizing the basic elements of the universe; the triangle, fire or heaven; the circle, water; and the rectangle, earth. This symbolism can also be extended so that the triangle becomes the hands of man in prayer; the circle may denote man, or the mirror which is one of the three most sacred Shinto symbols. These geometric symbols are mostly found as abstractions in the arrangement and shapes of garden elements.


Volume 24, Number 3
July 1970

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