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A Record of Garden Making

In Japanese American Concentration Camps

Yoshio Okumoto

When the Japanese and Japanese Americans reached their peculiarly American fate in the remote desert landscapes of the United States, they were given, by the War Relocation Authority, two illusions: time and space.

The illusion of time was manifest in having no end. The Japanese were removed from their homes and incarcerated first in assembly centers (euphemism for: temporary detention centers), then in relocation centers (euphemism for: concentration camps) for the duration of the war.

The Japanese did not know how long they were going to be detained, duration and war being synonymous.

The illusion of space, meanwhile, was manifest in a different kind of torture. Most of the camps were in spaces, surrounded by distant mountains or level with the horizon, that appeared without limit: the frontier. The Japanese were circumscribed within the limitlessness of the frontier, however, by barbed wire fences and guard towers and guards with guns aimed in.

Time without end and no space but illusion.

The concentration camps were formal expressions of what America envisioned for its Japanese population. Generations of anti-immigrant legislation could not contend with the fact that children of immigrants were being born in the United States, and were, therefore, citizens. The treatment of the children and grandchildren, even, of immigrants, as probationary wards of the state, embedded a fundamental redrawing of space.

Formal expressions, aka realizations; the camps exemplified the matryoshka-like carceral structure of the United States.

What is in the center … one last, impenetrable doll?

The Japanese were incarcerated for three years. Some, men rounded up by the FBI in the hours after Pearl Harbor, for four years.

Was it named Pearl Harbor because it was filled with oysters, or because the color of the water reminded Hawaiians of pearls?

Within the insoluble skin of the American matryoshka, Japanese immigrants and their children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren, etc.) conceived (and conceived of) a home, as a stay against, and an altar to, their forced removal and incarceration.

One way the Japanese transfigured the illusions of time and space into momentarily, therefore eternally, sustainable homes, was by designing and making gardens: thousands of gardens; thousands of concentrated horizons; thousands of reclamations, in the corners and margins, of home, ancestral, Japanese America; thousands of dreams of designs realized as pathological responses to a loss of control; thousands of effigies to the state-expedited evolution of Japanese American life.

How many people dream in gardens?

Not dream while in gardens, but dream gardens?

Evacuation (euphemism for: forced removal) began in spring. The Japanese were stripped of everything: houses, businesses, cars; authority, agency, control. Books and letters written in Japanese were burned; family heirlooms were destroyed. By early May, the Japanese were detained in temporary detention centers. They were removed, as early as June, and as late as October, to concentration camps.

The camp gardens appeared almost immediately. They were designed and made almost entirely by first generation (issei) men, 50-60 years old. They were made (san-shi-en) of found materials: vegetable gardens, stone gardens, cactus gardens, flower gardens, victory gardens, faux bois (false wood) gardens, tsukiyama (hill and pond) gardens, karesansui (dry landscape) gardens; wood, stones, wild plants, cactus, scrap metal, broken glass, animal bones. Almost immediately: as if the gardens were transplanted from home, or as if they were abstract spaces into which the Japanese could enter to temper the sense of alienation they felt upon arrival.

The gardens were there. But the gardens were not.

Many of the gardeners were gardeners. Almost 50% of the Japanese worked in agriculture, on farms, and in nurseries. The percentage was not unrelated to the conditions that enabled incarceration. White farmers and landowners, feeling threatened by the percentage, dreamed a viable path to Japanese dispossession.

Gardens possessed. Gardens brought families together, strangers together, the issei and their grandchildren together. Gardens provided detours and oases, contemplative spaces. Gardens outside mess halls and bathrooms and bathhouses enlivened waiting. Brought color to monotonous landscapes, landscapes to monotonous landscapes, the moss rose, for example, many beautiful shades. Fish abducted from nearby streams swam circles in small stone pools. Vines grew over windows, produced morning glories. Gardens grew eating.

Time reverted to the seasons; gardens marked the passage of time. Gardens were calendars; shadows of sculptural stones cast the hours of day, the phases of each season.

Gardens were restorative agents; they were symbols of immeasurable fortitude within landscapes of shame and tragedy. [1] Gardens reflected a sense of rebellion, patriotism, and cultural pride. [2]

Incarceration was not an interlude. In retrospect and representation, years and hours are like bars of an insoluble substance. History is an eclipse. When time and space are being lived, the substance moves. It surrounds and catches, entraps. Then it feels like you are the insoluble substance.

Incarceration was an ongoing crisis. The crisis was manifold. It was a crisis of liberty. Identity. Citizenship. Each bore the weight of each other. Incarceration was a project of assimilation (euphemism for: annihilation), its thesis being that there is only one path to American citizenship, and that is not difference, but incorporation, compliance.

Did gardens grow out of all that? Gardens grew out of precisely all that.

How long did it take before the concentration camp landscapes appeared, in any form, in the prisoners’ dreams? Night one? Night two?

Designs visited at night. Designs, coping mechanisms, answered the invitation of each sudden, then protracted, loss. Designs on the table, in the sky, June, October: thin walls separating dreams from the desert, sage land, high plains, swampy marshland. Shapes, formed by the consciousness, the attention and tending, of many centuries, inscribed on the dark, began turning.

The Sakuteiki (Records of Garden Making) is considered the oldest book on garden design not only in Japan but the world. It was composed in the eleventh century, during the Heian Period (794-1185), the same period that gave birth to The Tale of Genji (by Lady Murasaki) and The Pillow Book (by Sei Shonagon). Gardens in the Heian, especially shinden-zukuri (aristocratic-style) were influenced by gardens in China, and Chinese geomancy (i.e. feng shui).

One of the central tenets is that gardens must be designed according to the land on which the garden is made. Elements in nature not only possess spirits, they have opinions. A skilled gardener is empathetic, a listener. As if the gardener must first heed an invitation from the garden, before beginning the garden and becoming a gardener.

The Sakuteiki focuses on the arrangement of water, stones, and paths. It outlines five styles of garden design: ocean style, mountain torrent style, broad river style, wetland style, and reed style (all incorporating water). It outlines seventeen types of waterscapes and eight types of waterfalls.

Stones are of particular importance. Some are especially sacred. These, iwakura, act as mediums through which the gods return to earth. Ishi wo taten koto: the art of setting stones. Ishi no kowan ni shitagahite: following the request, the desire of the stone.

Gardens appeared on Honshu, and were based on the island’s varied landscape. The gardens provided the experience of travel, by the eye and the mind, one end of the island to the other. Emperors were fond of gardens, had gardens designed for their pleasure. They could see in them not only the variety of the nation, but the nation’s steadfastness, integrity.

The weather and the winds of change, however, sit on the emperors’ shoulders, and whisper, this can all be undone, this can all be undoing.

Stones upright like hands thrusting through earth (hands of earth).

The consciousness, attention and tending, of many centuries: Japanese gardens encode their origins: China, Honshu, Amida Buddhism, Taoism, the eight islands of Shinto, the Heian, Momoyama, emperors who came to depend on their gardens for companionship, to corroborate the drift of their aspirations, their mind for the future.

The gardens were subversions, forms of resistance. They materialized a forbidden vocabulary, a subliminal archive (subliminally) of Japanese culture. Issei could speak, through the gardens, to their grandchildren, Japan, in a language that would not arouse suspicion. The gardens were free speech, in which the embers of the burned language were reconstituted and shared. The grandchildren, who had never been to Japan, who did not speak Japanese, absorbed, through the enduring cultivation of the gardens, the consciousness of many centuries. The gardens were, in other words, translations.

The gardens contained, let in the outside. Barbed wire was breached. The Japanese were permitted, under armed supervision, to leave camp to forage for plants, dig up stones and trees, haul them back to the barracks. Cottonwoods were transplanted from the lowlands at Amache, silver poplars at Topaz. Cacti were transplanted from the edges of Gila River. It took Yasusuke Kogita, at Minidoka, with his two sons and a makeshift wheelbarrow, two months to carry an enormous boulder back to his garden.

Shapes, turning, reminded space. Merritt Park, the largest garden in Manzanar, designed by Kuichiro Nishi, featured a teahouse. There was also at Manzanar a replica of Otowa Falls, the waterfall at Kiyomizu-dera, the temple in Kyoto famous for the tradition of people jumping off the 40-foot high main platform into the trees below. Leaps of faith; 20% died. The guards at Manzanar were illiterate to the channels forming the falls, and the wishes to which the falling waters responded.

The gardens suspended (were suspended inside) conflict. Convolution. Personal gardens were the most immediate sign of this re-territorialization process. [3] It depends on what re-territorialization means.

The Japanese were de-territorialized, the issei severally. Were the gardens an effort at re-territorialization, a way to reconstitute culture in the midst of displacement? The gardens both were and were not the province of the Japanese immigrants and their citizen children and grandchildren. The gardens both were and were not the propaganda of the War Relocation Authority, and their overlord, the United States.

Re-territorialization is a form of propaganda.

So is the frontier.

The frontier is the fantasy of unsettled space. It is a euphemized acknowledgment of the white settler’s predilection for destruction. The frontier symbolizes the white settler’s desire to transcend himself, and his inherent understanding that he cannot, which forms part of his hatred of those who inhabit what the frontier conceals: the indigenous, and indigenous land. The government reconfigured indigenous land in preparation for incarceration; the Japanese occupied the United States’ determination to further grind indigenous bodies to dust. Who was re-territorializing, the Japanese or the United States government?

Were the gardens emblems of colonization?

Color, like beacons, to monotonous landscapes.

As the gardens were to the Japanese, so were the Japanese to the United States. More plainly: the Japanese in their camps were America’s gardens.

America dreamed then wielded its own designs, formed also by the consciousness of many centuries, but in the negative.

Design, the primary sharpening, inscribes, in turn, a reimagining of the landscape as a place of primary invention. It depends on whose hands, and to which arms they are attached.

The gardens, in the jurisdiction of white conquest, composted alien inscrutability into model imprisonment. The gardens provided proof, for those whose worldviews were based upon its fabrication, that the Japanese were resilient and resourceful, that they could make the best out of any situation; the gardens, in keeping with the American enterprise of converting xenophobia into appropriation, were rendered complicit in emanating the illusion that mass incarceration was endurable, therefore complicit in the defensibility of mass incarceration happening again.

In his book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, Allen Eaton, folk art expert and Craft revivalist, surveys the art, including gardens, the Japanese produced in the camps. He praises the prisoners’ spirit and ingenuity, and supplements his descriptions with photographs cast, both figuratively and literally, in uplifting light.

It was especially sad, Eaton writes (page 168), for those who had courageously and hopefully improved and made beautiful their barracks homes and dooryards. He is referring to when the Japanese were released; that what was especially sad was that the Japanese, removed again, back home or to unfamiliar communities, both vibrating with hostilities that had 3-4 years to gestate, were forced to abandon their gardens.

Design depends upon a period of both conscious and unconscious preparation; the mind forges, out of dark, even spectral, material, a solution, an improvement on living. Design is the realization of what the mind, becalmed and/or in distress, across generations or in a single, untraceable flash, has rehearsed. Is it possible to design and make a utopian space, an oasis, even, in the midst of incarceration? The utopian space would have to be a condition of incarceration, inseparable from it, only ever, like poems written on prison walls, the gesture of escape.

Were the gardens mirrors, mirages, the eyes of needles through which the souls of the incarcerated dreamed of threading themselves?

Through to … what?

They are ruins. You can go: to the ruins.

In other words: the gardens exist. The ruins are only a phase.

Stones remain. Like scars on the skin of a body that a visitor (pilgrim, grandchild, someone tuned to memorials, passerby) might take for a corpse, but which is more alive than the bloodless bodies that enacted the original wound.

Because maybe, plainly still: the Japanese were, redesigning themselves in the process of making and remaking and maintaining the gardens, the gardens’ gardens.

These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family… [4]

Even more solemn, more spectacular: mouths remain.

The men who designed and made the gardens are dead. Their children and grandchildren are alive or are dead, remember or do not. The people who come out of nowhere — who appear out of trees or tall grass or refractions of light — remember or do not (they were there or were not; I am here, they say. No.) They do not look at the ground and see, in the overgrown dreams of designs realized, mouths. Each stone was, but each stone is, a mouth, but not every mouth has blown away.

The mouths that remain: what are they saying?

That is one question I ask, forgetting, while asking, that mouths do not speak; mouths are the opening. Mouths make shapes, form expressions, even when carrying, to the surface, vows of silence. Especially. Mouths mark the place where a voice might exist — a voice, from the ceaselessly vibrating folds of the body.

  1. Anna Tamura, Gardens Below the Watchtower: Gardens and Meaning in World War II Japanese American Incarceration Camps
  2. Seiko Goto & Takahiro Naka, Japanese Gardens: Symbolism and Design
  3. Jane Elizabeth Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps.
  4. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
  • Allen Eaton, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: the Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps
  • Anna Tamura, Gardens Below the Watchtower: Gardens and Meaning in World War II Japanese American Incarceration Camps
  • Anna Tamura, Gardens in Camp. Densho Encyclopedia.
  • Jane Elizabeth Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps
  • Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
  • Mark Leone & Parker Potter, Historical Archeologies of Capitalism
    Sakuteiki (Records of Garden Making)