Chapter 2: Categorizing Japanese Gardens

by Nov 30, 2015Handbook, Part 1: Design & Craft0 comments

In this Chapter…

  • “Japanese” Gardens
  • Categories and Schemas
  • Making a List and Checking It Twice


“Japanese” Gardens

Japanese gardens are in some ways victims of their own popularity. They have edged into the domain of national stereotype, and imitations and pretenders abound both abroad and, sadly, within Japan. Most foreigners can recognize a Japanese garden readily enough, given the plethora of images published in coffee table books and magazines or broadcast around the globe in movies or on television. The indicators are the stock and trade of commercial hype and casual acculturation: Expanses of raked gravel punctuated by craggy stones, elaborately carved stone lanterns and multi-tiered towers, immense triad rock formations, emerald ponds teaming with multicolored carp, and stepping-stones arranged haphazardly through cool, green bowers. To the uninitiated, they are the realm of ascetic tea rituals in cramped rustic huts, graceful geisha meandering along gently-curving paths under red paper parasols, and bald-headed Buddhist monks pulling ripples into white sand with bamboo rakes.

But what exactly makes a garden Japanese? Simply amassing the traditional design elements within the confines of a single area is not sufficient. A garden that is only Japanese in appearance because it has sundry Japanese elements is said to be wafū (和風 “wa [Japanese] wind”; Nihon-fū 日本風 “Japan wind”), or Japanese style, whereas a garden that is thoroughly Japanese in principle, spirit, and technique has washin (和心 “wa [Japanese] heart or spirit”). In one sense, washin implies indigenous aesthetic style as opposed to imported Chinese, Korean or Western style. The contemporary term wayō-setchū (和洋折衷, 和洋折中 “wa [Japanese] Western bent feelings”) was created to refer to a compromise between, or integration of, the Japanese way and the Western way, and in aesthetics, the term is most closely associated with the Meiji period (1868-1912), during which the Japanese sought rapid industrialization and assimilation of all things Western. Obvious examples were the inclusion of flowerbeds, European topiary, and vast lawns in hybrid stroll gardens of the period.


Categories and Schemas


And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. – William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


It is human nature to categorize things. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle proposed a simple method for determining categorization: Classify according to defining features or qualities. Edward de Bono summarizes this succinctly in Six Thinking Hats: “Aristotle systemized inclusion/exclusion logic. From past experience we would put together “boxes,” definitions, categories or principles. When we came across something, we judged into which box it fell. Something could be in the box or not in the box. It could not be half in and half out – nor could it be anywhere else.”

For example, the defining features for the category of square under the classification of two-dimensional geometric figures might look something like this:

  • An enclosed geometric shape,
  • with four sides of equal length,
  • and four internal right angles,
  • the sum of which is 360º.

If a geometric figure adheres to each of these features, then it is by definition a square. If it does not, then it does not belong to the category of squares. This is all very well for simple items with clear-cut features, but what of more complex items with irregular properties and subjective qualities? Can something be inside a category, even if it does not adhere to all of the necessary parameters? According to the Aristotelian system, it cannot. And yet, we encounter countless items every day of our lives that do not fit neatly into conventionally established categories, which is why, in the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed a modification to Aristotle’s theory of category formation: Membership determined by family resemblance. This latitude allows us to construct a list of features, some of which may or may not be present.

Wittgenstein’s work on categorization was later taken up by Eleanor Rosch, who codified our knowledge of categorization as follows: Categories form around prototypes, which supply elemental features and qualities. Such lists of features tend to be dynamic, meaning that they change from time to time in response to the breadth and depth of exposure to items. Even the boundaries of categories are themselves rarely clear-cut, so membership is often a matter of opinion and open to debate. Think of it as a matter of degree, where some items in a category are better exemplars than others. We judge new items in relation to prototypes, often hedging our membership decisions with qualifiers. Lastly, there need not be any single attribute that all members of a category share.

In the case of Japanese gardens, categorization is important because it establishes a set of norms and lays down a pattern for a particular type of garden. It is only in relation to what we have experienced before that we can comprehend the deviations from these stylistic norms exhibited in a particular garden, and derive surprise and pleasure from them. Or shock and revulsion.

The term schema is used by empirical philosophers to refer to an organizational or conceptual model in the brain that serves to categorize items. We hold in our minds a schema for “park”, and we use this to further categorize the many different types of park: wilderness park, national park, city park, even amusement park. Each of these has essential elements that are common to all parks, shared features that are common only within its type, and finally distinct features that make a specific park unique. In other words, we have a schema for parks in general, a schema for each category of park, and what amounts to a memory for a specific park. Each time we encounter a new park, we compare it against existing models, categorize it, and update our schemas accordingly.

In this book, category refers to one of the eight idealized prototypes of Japanese gardens listed below, and schema refers to the list of family resemblances that a category shares. For each of the eight categories there is a separate chapter, which discusses its history, use, and typical elements, and includes a schema (list of possible identifying features) and a brief commentary on a few classic examples wherever these are deemed helpful. The eight broad categories are:

Categories sometimes overlap, and should not be taken as absolutes. The dry landscape garden is more often than not a type of contemplation garden, and stroll gardens of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) bear startling resemblances to their ancestral Heian (794-1185) counterparts. The schemas are necessarily selective, but they include the majority of conventionally accepted elements.


Making a List and Checking It Twice

Every time we visit or read about a Japanese garden, we update our schema for its category. Refining schemas makes the task of identification in the future easier and more immediate. Typically, a foreigner with little exposure to dry landscape gardens might have all or most of the following elements stored in his schema:

  • A dozen or so large, intriguingly shaped rocks,
  • surrounded by patches of dark green moss,
  • set in a rectangle of flaky gravel raked into ripple patterns,
  • bordered on two sides by a wall of packed earth capped with black ceramic tiles,
  • and overlooked from a veranda of natural wood with no railing.

But not all dry landscape gardens resemble the one at Ryoan-ji 竜安寺. One reason why Japanese gardens intrigue westerners is precisely because their schemas violate our existing schemas for what gardens are or should be. We have expectations based on years of visiting gardens in our home countries, and suddenly we find these expectations violated in new and exciting ways. A garden made only of rocks and gravel? A garden without flowers? A garden built between the wings of two buildings? A garden you can’t enter…?

Bibliographical Notes

And as imagination bodies forth… Shakespeare, W. A midsummer night’s dream, V.i.

Aristotle systemized inclusion/exclusion logic… de Bono, E. (1999). Six thinking hats. Revised and updated. New York: Back Bay Books; p. 2.

All additional information on categorization is abstracted from Levitin, D. J. (2007). You know my name, look up the number: How we categorize music. In This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Plume; pp. [133]-167.