Tradition and Diplomacy in the Japanese Friendship Garden

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By Sabrina Barwick, Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, I volunteered at the Japanese Friendship Garden in downtown Phoenix with members of our Thunderbird Net Impact chapter. It was one of the first cool Saturday mornings we desert dwellers have been blessed to experience since the summer heat finally broke. The garden is well hidden behind a large gate and difficult to see from the parking lot. Upon entering, I was delighted by the peaceful, lush oasis that welcomed me. I had no idea this plot of greenspace existed amongst the massive apartment complexes and invasive asphalt of rapidly developing downtown Phoenix. It was a treat to be welcomed in and share this sacred space with colleagues and strangers.

Camelback Rd. and 24th St. in 1988, courtesy of The Republic/AZ Central.

The Japanese Friendship Garden has grown concurrently with Phoenix. Proposed in 1987, the garden is a physical representation of the bond and positive relationship between Phoenix and its sister city, Himeji, Japan. Much attention was given to the successful implementation of a traditionally verdant garden in an arid climate like that of Phoenix. The sister cities created The Himeji Gardening and Construction Contractors Association and gave it the responsibility of planning and establishing a traditional Japanese garden in order to meet the requirements for the garden to be genuinely Japanese and to survive dry, hot weather. Creating an authentically Japanese garden requires consideration beyond aesthetics. According to A Japanese Garden Handbook, integration of traditional Japanese design elements (water, rocks, bridges, fish) into a standard garden is insufficient. At the Japanese Friendship Garden, care has been taken to integrate Japanese principles and spirit through collaboration with constructors in Himeji and through providing professional training on traditional gardening techniques to the lead gardener via travel to Japan. As it turns out, ducks are not part of a traditional Japanese garden and we volunteers were actively encouraged to shoo them away as they attempted to take advantage of the cool water the pond offered. Ducks are unwelcome in traditional gardens in Japan as well.

A few of our NI members checking out the koi, courtesy of Sabrina Barwick.

The Japanese Friendship Garden not only serves as a relaxing space for meditation, but it also serves as a tool for diplomacy. Developing this garden required an investment of time, thought, creativity, and compassion. Why would highly skilled architects and gardeners choose to invest such resources into a garden outside of their own country? The answer reflects the intangible relationship-building rewards we gain when including altruism in our practice of diplomacy. Politicians in Himeji recognized that an investment in something accessible and welcoming would result in a positive reputation for their country. Not only is the Japanese Friendship Garden a beautiful hideaway in Phoenix, but it (and the variety of other Japanese Gardens in the United States) actively strengthens the relationship between the United States and Japan and presents itself as an accessible educational resource.

Had it not been for the opportunity to volunteer with the delightful individuals at the Japanese Friendship Garden, I likely would not have learned of its fantastic contribution to downtown Phoenix. I encourage my fellow Phoenix inhabitants to schedule an hour or two to volunteer or visit during the next First Friday (there’s no entrance fee). Finally, as Vice President of our Thunderbird Net Impact chapter, if joyful community service and catalyzing change (here and abroad, of course) is something that pulls you out of bed every morning, send me an email and join us! We, and the organizations we partner with, love large groups of volunteers doing good things. If you, the reader, are not living in Arizona, I challenge you to donate a few hours of your time before the end of October to cause that motivates you. In the words of Aki Kurose, Japanese internment camp survivor, teacher, and peace activist, “If you’re not at peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with your community, you can’t really learn very much.”

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