Cultural Borrowing

japanese200810_300The very notion of creating a “Japanese style garden” raises many interesting questions, not least whether it is possible at all to create a “Japanese garden” outside of its geographical and cultural origins.

Much of the development of a gardener in Japan, apart from basic horticultural skills, involves a training of the eye. To see plants and rocks as dynamic sculptural forms, to develop a sensitivity to the layout of the garden’s components is fundamental. This way of viewing the garden is one of the significant distinguishing features between the two garden cultures.

In interpreting Japanese garden ideas in the UK it is therefore pertinent to look again at the tradition as a whole, to look beyond surface appearances towards the potential being offered, thereby drawing the greatest benefit from the study and appreciation of another culture.


In Japan, the exercise of creating gardens commenced in the 7th century and has evolved into a highly sophisticated tradition. One characteristic of the development of a tradition is that innovation and cumulative change occur relatively slowly. Also in the Japanese tradition there is a deliberate richness and ambiguity of meaning.

By contrast the Western garden has been subject to rapidly changing notions of taste and fashion, developments occurring at a much quicker pace, often a new style sweeping away the old. The Western view (especially in the visually dominated post modern world) primarily strives to be transparent and literal in its expression by comparison with that of Japan.

Japanese ‘style

Many “Japanese-style” gardens have been created in this country, varying from the loosest connection (a curved red bridge arching over a pond or a stone lantern set in a flower border), to more serious and high-minded attempts to recreate the manner of gardens that may be seen in Japan itself. Interpretation depends greatly on the garden creator’s experience and knowledge of the Japanese garden tradition.

When looking at older gardens another dependency is the time when they were built and the prevailing fashionable notions of that time. What might have been the height of fashion in a Japanese garden in the 1920s is different from our view today.

As design becomes more international, or trans-national, many elements of Japanese design principles are being adopted throughout the world. The differences between traditional design approaches in the two cultures are breaking down.

norwich 101Interpretation and authenticity

There are significant differences between Japan and the UK that must be dealt with in creating a Japanese-style garden here: climate, architecture, landscape, plant material and attitude to maintenance. All of these affect the interpretation of Japanese ideas and make an ‘authentic’ garden virtually impossible.

Perhaps the closest to an authentic appearance is a pure karesansui garden of gravel and boulders, such as that at Norwich cathedral. Even here the setting cannot reflect a setting in Japan.

Practical issues

There is little doubt that climate affects our gardens differently from those in Japan. Many plants grown in Japan are not hardy enough to grow well or at all here in Britain. Substitute planting material has to be used, which inevitably brings a different visual and textural quality.

Nursery businesses are significantly different in the two countries. In Japan it is perfectly normal to be able to buy 50 or 100 year old pruned trees and very large shaped shrubs. Gardens are contructed in their finished state using large trees and shrubs. Our nursery business does not have a history of growing and shaping such plant material and typically we plant young plants and trees, the finished garden only emerging after many years.

In Japan the garden and its associated building are inextricably linked, the building seems to be part of the garden and vice versa. This presents design issues in juxtaposing a garden from the Japanese culture with typical British architecture, making it harder to replicate the ‘feel’ of a Japanese garden.

Maintenance of Japanese gardens requires special skills, particularly in pruning. Garden cleaning and tidying on a daily basis is the norm for most domestic gardens in Japan. In the UK there is no doubt that the more successful Japanese gardens are those that benefit from the necessary maintenance regime.