Japanese Version





An Interview with Douglas Roth, publisher of The Journal of Japanese Gardening

by Steve Beimel



[Originally published in ny publication, The Kyoto Diary, in the late 1990’s]

This past June I had the pleasure of co-leading a special Garden Tour of Kyoto with Doug Roth and Tamao Coda, both of whom publish The Journal of Japanese Gardening. l have the pleasure here to share my recent interview with Doug Roth, a man who has an endless source of knowledge about the nature and workings of Japanese gardens.


Kyoto Diary (KD): I have been reading your publication, The journal of Japanese Gardening (JOJG ) for over a year and am very impressed with it. I think that we who live outside of Japan have a great deal to learn about creating, maintaining or even appreciating Japanese gardens. Before we can adequately do that, I think that we need a workable definition of a "Japanese garden." What is your definition?


Doug Roth (DR): In my mind, there are two things at the core of Japanese gardening: Nature and human beings. My working definition focuses on those two elements: A Japanese garden is a nature-inspired living environment that speaks to fundamental human needs.


KD: What would those fundamental human needs be?


DR: Just as we need oxygen, food, and water, I feel humans have a fundamental need to feel connected with the natural world. This topic has yet to receive much attention from the medical or psychiatric professions, but someday it will.


KD: It seems that you are referring to the sight of varying shades of green, of beautiful stone, of the sound that branches make blowing in the wind, or water babbling in a brook, of the fragrance of pines or sweet olive. And perhaps you are also talking about the sight of fish swimming in a pond or the play of water washing over rocks. What I am hearing within your definition, then, is that a Japanese garden is a place where we can experience a connection with nature which is deep, intimate and a very basic part of our psyche as human beings.


DR: Yes. That is correct.


KD: I think, though, that this connection could be experienced in many kinds of gardens, not just a Japanese garden. What sets a Japanese garden apart from other gardens?


DR: The main difference between Japanese gardening and other garden styles is that the Japanese garden tradition is more developed and mature. It's 1,000 years old, of course, and those weren't idle years. Other garden cultures claim to be nature-inspired, but compared to the Japanese they are still young and developing. Gradually I think the rest of the world will learn the same lessons as the Japanese did. For example, when I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania few homeowners would dare put a rock in their front yard. Now almost every new high quality landscape includes rock. That is a lesson that is being learned by Americans-that rock has value. The Japanese, of course, learned that same lesson centuries ago.


Many garden styles claim to be "nature-inspired," and their goals are similar to those of Japanese gardening. The main difference, I think, is the level of development and maturity. Since the Japanese garden tradition is 1,000 years old, they have tried a lot of ideas and rejected most of them. For example, younger garden styles try to actually be natural. Japanese gardens strive, instead, to evoke the feeling of nature. Young garden styles try to blend in with nature, while Japanese gardens recognize the need for enclosure. There are many other examples that all point to the maturity and wisdom of Japanese gardens. I predict that those younger "naturalistic" garden styles will all eventually follow the enlightened path established by the Japanese garden tradition. They're gradually learning the same lessons that the Japanese learned centuries ago.


KD: It is amazing to think of how these "matured concepts" have crept into our American way of life. I especially see it in California, where landscapers have long ago abandoned the "lawn in the middle/ shrubs around the edge approach" for a mixture of stones and naturally placed plants. Even the ubiquitous sliding glass patio doors are a Japanese influenced way of bringing the garden into the house by making it completely visible from the interior living space. If we compare today' s modern house with those 100 years ago, I think that we are "maturing" pretty quickly.


DR: Well that's an interesting topic-how "mature" our American homes and gardens are. To me, it seems hopeless to compare the overall quality of American gardens with that of Japanese gardens. Even the best American carpenters would have trouble matching the quality of an ordinary Japanese garden gate. Few landscapers understand the concept of aesthetic tree pruning. And, even if you search the entire country, it is hard to find anyone who can set stone skillfully.


KD: So, like many of the Japanese arts, the techniques of garden making were tried and tested and honed and whittled down to a solid foundation of essential elements. They set a standard. They created an aesthetic that has a profound effect on people. It universally speaks to us regardless of our cultural background. How can we ever expect to catch up to that level of precision?


DR: To me the "level" of American gardening isn't all that important. What's more important is the direction we're moving in. Nation-wide there are a lot of positive trends to be happy about. These would include the use of water, bamboo, koi, rocks, moss, and aesthetically pruned trees. And perhaps the most exciting development has been the American timber framing revival. That, alone, opens up all kinds of possibilities for integrating the inner space of the home and the outer space of the garden into a more cohesive and flowing whole.


KD: By those "positive trends" you mention it appears that people are coming to accept and incorporate aspects of gardening into their homes without even realizing where these techniques have come from. (Similarly, few people realize that English Victorian gardens came directly from the Chinese.) As water, bamboo, koi, rocks, moss, and aesthetically pruned trees creep into their gardens, they probably don't know that this "new" style is Japanese or realize that it comes from the most advanced form of gardening that exists. The Japanese have been able to bring garden making to the level of art. I think that if we remove typical Japanese items such as stone lanterns and certain stylized water basins from the picture, we could really replace the name "Japanese Garden" with "highly refined, intimate, private, nurturing garden environments which evoke the feeling of nature and which were developed by the Japanese." Certainly a cumbersome handle, but mavbe more accurate than "Japanese Garden."


DR: Yes, I think that's the right idea-to emphasize the universal aspects of Japanese gardening and to downplay the culturally specific ones. The Japanese nearly perfected the art of garden building, but I believe that the fundamental lessons they learned are applicable anywhere, not just in Japan. Think, for example, about wine making. Over many centuries, the French took that activity and refined it to near perfection. But is wine a "French" drink? No, of course not. In the past 50 years a few other regions (California, for example) have learned from the French, and their wines can rival even the best from France. This is a good thing, I think.


KD: After reading your publication for the past year, then spending those two weeks with you in Kyoto, I came away feeling that the term "Japanese Garden" was loaded with misconceptions and myths. It also seems so culturally limiting that I fear it causes most people to think of these gardens as "exotic, foreign and mysterious." I recall that on the tour someone asked you how they could make their mature pine grove "look more Japanese." It seems to me, however, they were really asking, "How can I make my pine grove look more refined, evoking intimacy, privacy, and the feeling of nature in ways which were developed by the Japanese?" I think that we need another term besides "Japanese Garden." After all, we don't say, "Please pour me a glass of Napa, California French Wine." 


DR: You' re absolutely right about that. I don't like the term, "Japanese" gardening either, because it limits the topic to just one culture. It would be great if Japanese gardening had its own freestanding name like "bonsai" or "judo." The English language has absorbed those terms, and they appear in our dictionaries. Although those activities developed in Japan, they now stand on their own as part of the world's culture. Part of their universal image lies in their non-nationspecific names.


KD: Here is our chance to change history! How about coining a new name?


DR: Interestingly enough, in the July JOJG issue I wrote an essay about this very subject, and I suggested the term, "Sukiya Living." I can see expanding the term even further to clearly include the living structures that are so much a part of the garden. How about "Sukiya-style living environment."


KD: I like that name because it refers specifically to the aesthetic of rusticity which reached it golden age with the establishment of tea in the late 1500's. Sukiya-style is the essence of the refinement that the Japanese have given to the world. Thank you for this new and accurate way of referring to the gardens we love so much.


Steve Beimel is the founder and one of the leaders of Esprit Travel's Walking Tours of Japan. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of THE KYOTO DIARY.

The first foreigner licensed to practice gardening in Japan, Doug Roth designs and maintains Japanese gardens over North America and copublishes The Journal of Japanese Gardening. By his efforts in educating the American public, he is demystifying the ancient art of Japanese gardening, making it more understandable and accessible.

Author: stevebeimel

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