—— Tell me, how did you get involved with The Japanese Friendship Garden?
Well, about 15 years or so ago I was persuaded to join the board. To tell the truth, I wasn’t very interested at first, but somehow I got talked into it and over the years this place really grows on you. It’s so beautiful, how could it not? Then some years later it happened again! The same person, Moto Asakawa, who talked me serving as a board member somehow convinced me to take over for him as President…and I’ve been here ever since.
—— Like many people, I’ve been coming here for years to enjoy the beautiful scenery and escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Can you share with us some of the garden’s history?
Well, the garden’s evolution has taken many twists and turns to get to this point, but has existed in one state or another since 1915, the year the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held both here in San Diego and in San Francisco. The original tea house and garden were really very impressive and beautiful, but unfortunately they were torn down a long time ago. They were in a corner of the park, just a short distance from El Prado, the park’s main avenue. That’s where the Children’s Zoo is now. A San Francisco firm “Watanabe and Shibada” built the tea house and garden for the Expo, managed the exhibits and ran the concessions selling items imported by Kyosan Kai Company.
—— So it was created for the Pan-Pacific Exposition. What happened to it after that?
When it closed the owners handed everything over to the City of San Diego. The City, in turn, then leased the building to the Asakawa family who ran the concession and were caretakers of the grounds. In those days, they actually lived in the park and basically continued to do so up until the United States’ entry into World War II.
—— That’s amazing! So they lived the way most Balboa Park visitors dream about…they really did have this beautiful place as their home! Not too many people have a yard like this.
That’s for sure! As a matter of fact, Moto Asakawa, our past president and the man responsible for getting me involved, was born right here in the park! He grew up here and later was instrumental in re-establishing what we see here today and is still a big contributor. Meanwhile, I was born just down the street…at 8th and Market in the old Japanese part of downtown.
During the war The Red Cross used the tea house as a lounge for Naval Hospital personnel and patients up until 1946 when the Navy moved back to its main grounds. Afterwards, it was boarded up and basically abandoned…later in 1954, the Zoological Society asked the City to allocate the two-acre site for use as a children's zoo. So in April 1955, workers razed what was left of the original tea house and garden…and that was the end of it.
—— How did the new Japanese Friendship Garden get started?
Of course there were a lot of people and groups, such as the Yokohama Sister City Society, who fought to re-establish and develop a Japanese Garden in the park, but one of the key events and funniest stories in its rebirth was how we received the 2 million dollar grant of money and land from the City of San Diego. That was a big deal. You see, idea of giving money to establish a garden wasn’t too popular at the time, but one councilman, Bruce Henderson, was on our side and presented the idea to the City Council. There was a public hearing and vote…and things didn’t look too good. It was touch & go, until a loud and obnoxious woman, dead set against the garden, got up and started making horribly insulting remarks about Japanese people. It was unbelievable, but thank god for her! She was so rude and embarrassing that the City Council had to vote in favor of the garden. Life is funny, isn’t it? She was the very reason it was passed!
—— So without that crazy lady, we might never have even had a Japanese garden! After that I guess you still had a lot work to do?
A lot of work! Even with the grant we still needed to raise money because that was what you call matching funds. We were given 11.5 acres, and even now we’ve only developed 2.5 of them for the current garden, which by the way has a Japanese name…San-Kei-En, meaning a garden with three types of landscapes. Takeshi Ken Nakajima, who designed the first phase, named it after a garden in Yokohama, which he helped to restore after the war. There are 5 phases planned…Phase I, was completed in 1990, and almost all of what the garden is now was completed during Phase II, which opened in 1999. Prof. Takeo Uesugi, who teaches landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, designed it and it really changed everything…the garden now includes the Tea Pavilion at the entrance and greatly expanded the garden itself. We added a beautiful koi pond , waterfall, stone paths, bonsai, and so many other beautiful features, including a refurbished exhibit house and office.
—— The latest addition to the Friendship Garden really is fantastic. What are you working on now?
We still have a long way to go and we’re still trying to grow, but we have to work to maintain what we already have. We’re lucky to have groups such as the Koi Assoc. and Bonsai Assoc., among others help us out. We’re working on the canyon and, as a matter of fact, today we’re planting some cherry trees that were donated by the Asakawa family. Eventually, we’d like to build another tea house, as soon as we raise enough money. We used to have one that was shipped over from Yokohama for the international cottages, but that one got so old it had to be torn down. In addition to all this, we have our ongoing programs: teaching kids about Japanese culture and other ongoing classes open for everyone in origami, bonsai, ikebana etc. Someday, we’d like to build a big culture center for all the various Japanese-American groups to use…serving to bring together all the different groups, but without a big community center we can’t do it. Unfortunately, it all depends on money.
—— Speaking of money, how do you fund all of this?
Well, aside from the one time grant from the city, we rely on donations, attendance, sales from the concessions and our two biggest fund raisers…the Moonlight Festival and Christmas on the Prado. Recently, the City took a survey regarding
attendance in Balboa Park since 9/11 and overall attendance is down, but can you believe the Friendship Garden’s attendance has almost doubled! Isn’t that interesting? People really love it here!
—— Do you think your being President had any affect on attendance (laughing) ?
No, no, no! (laughing) It's the garden, absolutely!
(9-16-2002 issued , Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)