Panama-California Exposition

CHAPTER FOUR: East Meets West in Balboa Park

Japan was the first nation to set up exhibits at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. Its six-acre exhibit, the largest sponsored by a foreign country, consisted of five main buildings, nine summer houses, a lagoon, a stream crossed by tiny bridges, a small mountain down which plunged a cascade, and thousands of trees and plants. A reception building copied the Kinkaku, or Golden Pavilion, at Rukuonji, Kyoto, without the third story. A small lagoon near the pavilion reflected its slender pillars and graceful curves. The Golden Pavilion is the most reproduced of Japanese buildings. A more accurate facsimile had been put up in St. Louis for the 1903-04 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Japanese architect Takeda-Goichi designed the buildings for the San Francisco Fair and Izawa-Hannosuke designed the two-acre garden. Businesspeople from Japan and Formosa installed exhibits in the official government buildings and in Exposition palaces devoted to education, agriculture, food products, liberal arts, transportation, mining, manufacturing and varied industries. Looking like the homes of daimyos before Commodore Matthew Perry opened the country to foreign commerce in 1854, official government buildings had sliding panels, upturned roofs, bracketed eaves, and wood-beam supports. One such building, nearly 5,000 feet square, contained an art collection that reputedly belonged to Emperor Yoshihito of Japan.

A Los Angeles Times reporter stated the Japanese concession on the Amusement Zone consisted of “four quaint houses, dainty rooms, and queer shops with geisha girls to entertain and dainty maidens to serve refreshments.” The reporter’s fondness for cliches was greater than his powers of discernment. Wrestlers, dancers, jugglers, and acrobats tried to keep visitors’ eyes off the geisha girls.

Professor of history Robert W. Rydell was annoyed by a 120-ft. Buddha that stood over the entrance to an Amusement Zone concession and by the bazaars and shooting galleries inside. Turning the great Buddha into a gaudy spectacle seems tacky, but activities inside the concession were no different from other stereotypical offerings along the “Joy Street.” Anyway, they were installed and run by Japanese.

San Diego’s rival 1915 Panama-California Exposition was smaller and more regional than San Francisco’s. It highlighted archaeological and anthropological displays, advertised the agricultural potential of the Southwest, presented industrial exhibits stressing process over product, and provided a setting of acacias, eucalyptus, palms, flowering vines, and cactus from which emerged Spanish-Colonial churches and palaces.

Tucked in a corner of the grounds, a short distance from El Prado, the main avenue, the San Francisco firm of Watanabe and Shibada built a tea house and garden. The firm also managed the display and sale of goods, imported by Kyosan Kai Company, in the Foreign and Domestic Arts Building, and the “Streets of Joy” concession on the Isthmus, San Diego’s equivalent of San Francisco’s Zone.

Merchandise in the Foreign and Domestic Arts Building ranging from inexpensive to the dear included Chinese and Japanese arts and crafts. A representative explained how pearls were artificially cultivated by introducing foreign substances inside oysters and artisans demonstrated their skill in carving ivories. Merchants were anxious to show that Japanese goods were better than those of other nations and in keeping with the changing tastes of American buyers. They claimed that the Morimura white china they sold could be mistaken for Haviland china and that the cloisonne they sold, with and without wire, was superior to cloisonne made by the Chinese, from whom the Japanese had learned techniques of manufacture. While the fans, paper napkins, kimonos, pearls, teakwood cabinets, tapestries, screens, china and cloisonne were for sale, other objects were to be looked at, such as a cloisonne plate valued at $2,500, a mahogany cabinet valued at $10,000, a pearl valued at $40,000, a large Makuju vase, and images of Fujin, god of the winds, from a temple at Nara.

Scholars have commented that by displaying American-Japanese products that reinforced cultural stereotypes, Japanese merchants in the United States slighted the more refined products made in Japan for local consumption and ignored (if they knew) the works of their country’s past. Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Arts, has declared the brocaded-gold Satsuma ware, sold in the Foreign and Domestic Arts Building at San Diego, was produced for the worst taste of the Victorian era. Likewise, Hina Hirayama has written that the quality and craftsmanship of Japanese ware sent to the United States to satisfy a craving for Japanese decorative objects ranged from excellent to makeshift, crude and cheap.

Inside the “Streets of Joy” on the Isthmus, built to resemble a provincial town in the Edo period, diners ate chop suey (a Chinese-American dish) at a restaurant, acrobats performed in a theater, and gamblers played cards and tossed dice. The gamblers could, if they were lucky, win kimonos and bowls of goldfish. Apparently the games were of an innocent character for there is no record that the sheriff or district attorney tried to close the operation, as they did so often the games at the Camp of ’49.

Reporters were so caught up in describing the main attractions of the Exposition that they overlooked the Japanese contribution. It is possible they did not know how to interpret what they were seeing. Pictures of the tea house were published with puerile comment about a Bridge of Long Life in front. The exaggerated arch and shortened span of the bridge were not typical of Chinese and Japanese bridges which took the half-moon shape to enable pleasure boats to pass underneath and to show off their reflections in the water. All the talk of getting good luck or of prolonging life by climbing over the bridge was poppycock!

The garden was an adjunct to the tea house. G. R. Gorton, in The California Garden, described its features. Plants, stone lanterns, bronze cranes, and a winding stream were squeezed into a space so small that everything was foreground. There was no sense of depth or of “borrowed’ scenery from afar. Even so, details were carefully executed and placed by gardeners aware of the techniques of bonsai and ikebana. Overall harmony of elements was, however, sacrificed for compressed effects, which could be best seen only from a frontal position. Unlike courtyard and vestibule gardens in Japan, the garden in Balboa Park was not enclosed by a fence or wall that would define its space and determine its boundaries.

San Francisco’s two-acre garden was larger and more varied than San Diego’s. It had 1,300 trees, nearly 4,400 plants, 25,000 sq. ft. of Korean turf, more than 250 rocks, and paths winding around buildings and across lagoons. But the garden in San Diego had features enough to fill in empty spaces, the spaces from whence some observers think comes the mystery and power of Japanese gardens. It had stone lanterns, bronze cranes, a nearly 100-year old “Sugi” pine less than three feet in height, azaleas, wisterias, dwarfed cedars and dwarfed weeping junipers, maki pines, bamboo, Korai-shiba grass, two cycads, a ginkgo tree, aralia and laurel shrubs, miniature falls, a winding stream, two pools, and brocaded koi.

To a Japanese gardener, rocks are among the most important elements in a garden. Yet Gorton ignored this feature. Rocks, of exquisite color, texture and shape, were in the Balboa Park garden in rows, clusters, along the water’s edge, in the water as islands and stepping stones, and along paths as lanterns and water basins. To the horror of lovers of Japanese gardens, these venerable rocks were thrown away when the garden was demolished.

Gorton was informed about the plants, but uninformed about the tea house. He claimed it was a copy of a tea house in Katsura, a district of Kyoto, that had been in existence for 2,000 years. Since Kyoto was founded in 794 A.D., the statement is false. Moreover, the Balboa Park tea house is as much like the simple, small, cha-seki tea houses belonging to the Detached Palace in Katsura as Thoreau’s ten feet wide by fifteen feet long hut at Walden Pond was like the 70- stories tall RCA Building in Rockefeller Center.

Struck by the difference between the secular teahouse and garden in Balboa Park and the quiet passageways and rustic pavilions in monochrome Japanese tea gardens designed by the Zen tea master Sen-no-Rikyu (1521-1591), Tanso Ishihara and Gloria Wickham claimed the small Japanese exhibition house, drum bridge, a second bridge spanning a winding stream, carp, water lilies, flowering trees, and a snow lantern in Balboa Park were closer in spirit to the informal multi-colored shinden pleasure gardens of the early Heian period (784-1183). However pertinent this observation may be to the Hakone Garden at Saratoga, California (the subject of Ishihara’s and Wickham’s study), it is difficult to relate it to the 1915 Exposition garden in Balboa Park. The hostess at Hakone and waitresses in Balboa Park served tea to guests on open verandas in a casual, non-religious atmosphere. There the resemblance ends.

An Official Guide to Balboa Park, April 15, 1925, claimed the tea house was similar to “a structure one would find on the wooded slopes of Mount Fuji, pagoda-roofed, with paper-windowed walls, and a wide veranda.” Another guess from a stay-at-home traveler!

Carleton M. Winslow, resident architect for the Panama-California Exposition, wrote that the tea house was designed by K. Tamai. The Watanabe and Shibada Trade Association shipped parts made in Japan to San Diego along with Japanese carpenters who put the parts together, using mortises, tenons, pegs and wedges.

By looking at photographs of Japanese buildings, one can see that the model for the building was not a public or private tea house, but a Buddhist temple. The basic structure of the building, based on the post and lintel system, the prominent roof, the deep overhangs, and the complex brackets were Chinese in origin. While possessing many Chinese touches, the building was less ostentatious than its Chinese ancestors. In its massing, two levels, center entrance, and veranda, the pavilion looked like the Mampu-ji, or Lecture Hall, at Uji, near Kyoto. Art historian Noritake Tsuda has described the Mampu-ji as “almost entirely Chinese in style.”

Though the building in Balboa Park appeared to have two roofs, it was a one-story building with an intermediate or pent roof, shielding an open veranda. Both roofs were covered by wood shingles rather than tiles. The main hip and gable (irimoya) roof with its curving eaves, was as striking as a woman’s colossal hat. The entrance was on the lateral side of the building, not, as is common in Japanese temples, on the narrow or gable side.

A cusped gable above the center entrance contrasted with a triangular dormer gable on the main roof. The intermixing of gables was a feature of the great castles (donjon) built during the Edo period, such as Hikone and Himeji Castles. Cresting elements on the gables of the Balboa Park building resembled the flamboyant, ceremonial helmets worn by samurai. Carved dragons, Hoho birds, and Sachi fish, under gables and eaves and at ridge ends of the roof, symbolized long life and happiness. Ironically, the fish had their mouths closed. This was inappropriate as Sachi fish swallowed devils and put out fires by spouting water from their mouths. Mythological allusions on the building were modest compared to the exuberant treatment of mythological subjects on the mausoleum buildings at Nikko, near Tokyo.

A simple, modular, asymmetrical Sukiya Shoin style, of which the Detached Palace at Katsura is the prime example, was introduced into Japan in the fourteenth century. Gardening techniques were modified to blend with the new, unaffected style of ground-hugging buildings. Ornate older style buildings were still built by the military rulers, but the displaced aristocracy and followers of Zen Buddhism preferred the quieter styles. The Balboa Park tea house and grounds represented the older, exclamatory style.

The approach to the tea house being short, there was no room for the surprises a visitor would discover at every turn in a meandering pond (chisen- kaiyu-shiki) garden. A narrow, concrete walkway led in a straight line over a simply curved red-vermilion lacquer bridge, up a short flight of stairs, and into the main room of an axial building.

Buddhist temple though it was on the outside, sliding (fusuma) screens on the inside divided spaces into private and public rooms. Sliding paper-covered (shoji) screens replaced windows on outside walls, allowing the passage of soft light. Windows were more likely to be open than closed. An indoor eating room had a high, coffered ceiling with paper transom panels containing spiral patterns, swastikas, flower crests, and depictions of cranes in flight. Young women, dressed in silk kimonos with their hair piled up in elegant coiffures, served tea, rice cakes, kumquat candies, and green ice cream on verandas and inside the building.

An elevated tatami room to the right of the entrance was out of place as such rooms belonged to “writing-table,” shoin-style homes and would not be found in large commercial (o-chaya) tea rooms. The tatami room was equipped with an alcove (tokonoma) decorated with a hanging scroll (kakemono) and a vase with formal (rikka) or informal (nageire) flower arrangements. A post (toko-bashira) separated the alcove from staggered shelves (chigai-dana) on which were displayed incense burners, sake cups, tea bowls, and tiered food boxes. No photographs survive of the tatami room, but it is doubtful the chigai-dana came up to the standards of the famous staggered shelves of the Jodan-no-ma, or First Room of the Detached Palace in Katsura. People who entered the tatami room were expected to take off their shoes and to sit on the floor. Proprietors of the tea house lived in quarters in the rear of the building.

O-chaya teahouses in Japan are located along crowed streets in the older sections of cities. Bamboo blinds hide indoor activities from the view of pedestrians. Rooms may open onto small gardens with stone lanterns and strands of bamboo. Specially trained geisha girls serve male guests sake and entertain them by dancing and playing the shamisen.

At the conclusion of the Panama-California International Exposition, Watanabe and Shibada gave the tea house to the City of San Diego. The City, in turn, leased the building to Asakawa Hachisaku. Asakawa, his wife Osamu, and a cousin, Asakawa Gozo, managed the concession through the 1935-36 Exposition and up to the entry of the United States into World War II. Along with other Japanese-Americans on the west coast, the Asakawas were interned during the war.

The American Red Cross used the tea house as a lounge for U.S. Naval Hospital personnel and patients until 1946 when the Navy moved back to its main hospital grounds. As the money the federal government paid the City for wartime damages to buildings in Balboa Park was not enough to cover repairs, the building deteriorated. Boarded up, but defenseless, super-patriots and vandals turned the tea house into a shambles. The garden reverted to chaos. In November 1954, Milton G. Wegeforth, president of the Zoological Society, requested of the City of San Diego that the two acres on which the tea house and garden were situated be assigned to the Society for a children’s zoo. In April 1955, workers razed the tea house and garden.

Lovers of the beauties of past ages regretted the passing of the Japanese tea house and garden in Balboa Park, even as they rejoiced over the opening in August 1990, of the first phase of the San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden. The phoenix — a Japanese and also an Egyptian symbol of resurrection — has died, but the Phoenix continues to live.

The new garden, to be built in five phases, will occupy an eleven and one- half acre site embracing most of a canyon called Spanish Canyon in 1915-16 and Gold Gulch Canyon in 1935-36. Appointed in 1985 by the Japanese Garden Society of San Diego to prepare plans for the site, Takeshi Ken Nakajima named the garden San-Kei-En, which means a garden with three types of scenery. These are pastoral, mountain and lake. Nakajima took the name from a garden of the same name in Yokohama, San Diego’s sister city since 1957, that he had helped to restore after the bombardments of World War II. A landscape architect with an international reputation, Nakajima has designed gardens in Japan, Canada, the United States, Russia and Australia. In 1993, he created a 5.6 acre Japanese garden in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas, taking care to preserve tall pine trees and old oaks on the site.

The garden in Balboa Park will conform to the stroll (Kaiyu-shiki) garden style. A garden house, cultural center, and tea house will be in a complementary naturalistic “tea taste” (Sukiya Shoin) style. Classes on the tea ceremony and Japanese culture will be conducted in the buildings.

One-story buildings will be so oriented that people seated inside can view the gardens. Sukiya style villas are known for their restraint, use of rough-hewn posts, and checkerboard patterns of translucent paper and opaque plaster panels. Tea houses in the Sukiya style are small and rustic. To preserve their natural character, ceilings are open and wood posts and lintels are crudely finished.

Stepping stone paths, lined with stone lanterns, lead up to the tea houses. Guests rinse their mouths and wash their hands at a water basin before stooping to enter through a crawl door. Samurai who took part in the tea ceremony had to hang their swords on a rack outside as weapons did not belong in the world of tea.

With so many outstanding stroll gardens in Japan to provide inspiration and with the changing spaces and elevations of the Balboa Park canyon to manipulate, there is every likelihood that if his plans are followed, Nakajima will create a Japanese garden in Balboa Park comparable to the wonderful Japanese gardens in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is wishful thinking to equate American Japanese gardens with gardens in Japan because cultural, topographical and climatic factors are different.

All the gardens in Balboa Park are designed to awaken sensibilities; but, because of constricted spaces, formal arrangements, and incongruous juxtapositions they interfere with a seemingly artless progression of picturesque landscapes. Free of these hindrances, the new Japanese garden will integrate air, water, rocks, soil, plants and people in a harmonious and symbolic composition in which no part is greater than others. Flowers in a Japanese garden enhance scenery. They are not the garden’s reason for being.

The emotions a stroll garden tries to induce are those of wabi, sabi. and yugen. There are no exact English equivalents for these words, but a feeling of ecstasy evoked by being alone with nature in settings that look old and where all parts contribute to the harmony of the whole covers some of their meanings. Ulrike Hilborn wrote that as he walked around the Nitobe Gardens in Vancouver, he felt he was beginning a new day and a new life that passed from mid-life to old age with stops along the way where he could rest and look back on the day and on the life. A stroll garden that can produce such an effect must be profound indeed.

Here is how the Chinese poet Han Shan described the intoxicating powers of nature:

Today I’m back at Cold Mountain
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

The Japanese poet Basho had a similar experience when he wrote:

The ancient pond
A frog jumps in,
The sound of water.

In 1915, Japan was a world power with a long history of cultural, philosophical and religious achievement. It had acquired Formosa during a war with China in 1894-95 and had defeated Russia in 1904-05. This was a country of energetic and intelligent people who were not about to succumb to the threats of European and American countries.

While the Japanese government did not mount a major exhibit at the Panama-California Exposition, businesspeople, who represented their government, did. They wanted to present a romantic image of their country that stimulated a demand for Japanese goods while simultaneously asserting Japan s right to be included among the nations of the modern world.

Unlike demeaning exhibits put up on the Zone in San Francisco and on the Isthmus in San Diego belittling people belonging to nonwhite races or having religions other than Christian, Japanese exhibits did not pander to prejudice. The Joss House in Underground Chinatown on the Isthmus in San Diego represented a flagrant exhibition of racial denigration. Here, wax effigies of Chinese laborers showed the horrors of opium addiction. A similar exhibit in San Francisco so infuriated local Chinese that it was withdrawn.

The same Japanese immigrants who displayed gracious hospitality, artistic taste, and athletic skill at the San Francisco and San Diego Expositions were by federal law ineligible for citizenship. Additional laws, passed by the U.S. Government in 1907 and 1924, stopped all immigration to the United States from Japan. California laws prevented Japanese from marrying white women and prohibited them from owning or leasing agricultural land. Nevertheless, children of immigrants, born in the United States, were American citizens by right of birth. Notwithstanding, 93,000 Japanese in California, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were detained in makeshift camps, guarded by soldiers and surrounded by barbed wire, during World War II.

The use of adjectives such as quaint, little and dainty to describe Japanese contributions to expositions in Europe and the United States is ironic. Following the Meiji restoration of 1868, Japanese businessmen began importing Western technology and culture while exporting a stage set image of themselves as a gentle people wearing colorful kimonos, who lived near waterfalls, rocks and pine and cherry trees with snow-capped Mount Fuji looming in the background. American and Japanese importers fostered the image of inoffensive, agrarian Japanese, while American exporters sent knowledge, raw materials, and goods to a country that quickly became an industrial giant. Conflicts between the United States and Japan reached a climax during World War II. Though conflicts have not been eliminated, the two countries have learned that in order to coexist amicably, they must understand one another.

Unlike Westerners, the Japanese do not think of nature as something outside of themselves that they must control. They believe they are part of nature and that the same masculine and feminine forces that causes trees to grow or water to fall are manifest in their being. Americans and Europeans do not have to become Buddhist monks, students of Noh, writers of haiku, masters of flower arrangement, or recluses on mountains to grasp the way in which Japanese seek fulfillment in a nature in which qualities of openness and enclosure, hardness and softness, light and dark, rectangles and circles, symmetry and asymmetry are delicately balanced.. The gardens of Japan and their American, Canadian and European counterparts open the way for West to join East in a realm where art and nature merge. The words of Ryokan, a thirteenth-century Buddhist priest on his deathbed, indicate how people can see themselves in a natural world:

For a memento of my existence
What shall I leave (I need not leave anything)?
Flowers in the spring, cuckoos in the summer,
and the maple leaves
in the autumn.

Japanese gardens show Westerners and Easterners alike that we are not alone in an indifferent world in which the gods laugh at us. If we abandon for a time our preoccupation with getting and spending, and stop to listen, see and think, we can discover that a meticulously channeled nature can refresh our jaded spirits. The following lines written about Kinkaku-ji, the garden of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, show how Japanese gardens manifest the quiet spirit that lies within or behind all motion and phenomena:

The mountain is sharply etched, 
the woods are colorful,
the valleys deep, streams rapid.

Moonlight is clear on a softly
breathing wind.

Man reads in the quietness
scripture without words.

Gardens are not the only Japanese gift to the western world. It is a country of great artists, craftsmen, writers, and philosophers. But gardens are the most accessible, easily understood, and loved of Japanese contributions to its own and other peoples.