From the President: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Japanese Friendship Garden

By: Bill Staples Jr.  |  

October 15, 2022

The Japanese Friendship Garden celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In honor of the occasion, I thought it would be interesting to learn the backstory of how it came to be, and about some of the individuals and organization who helped make it possible. The following article was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Angela Cara Pancrazio, who was also a long-time friend of Arizona’s Japanese American community. Her article was published in the Arizona Republic on Nov. 15, 2002. 


Japanese garden took years of devotion 

A Japanese garden is never finished. Not even now, after nearly 15 years, $4 million from Phoenix bond funds, $1 million in private donations and dozens of trips between the city and Japan. 

Even Thursday, Japanese architect Takeshi Hirose awoke early, sunk his hands into the pond and pulled out a rock. As if returning a wounded bird to its nest, he placed it next to a large boulder. 

Koichi Hara of Himeji, Japan, is in Phoenix to help with the final touches of the Japanese Friendship Garden. The roof-shaped structure symbolic of ancestors can be found throughout the central Phoenix garden. Arizona Republic, 2002. 

According to the 2002 Arizona Republic article, Mayor Matsuji Totani of Hemiji, Japan, a Phoenix Sister City, wrote the calligraphy of the park’s name on this sign. 


Such painstaking care with the rocks is part of the devotion that went into creating Arizona’s first authentic, public Japanese garden, which opens Saturday in central Phoenix. 

The Japanese Friendship Garden in Margaret T. Hance Park is a shared vision of Sister Cities Phoenix and Himeji, Japan. Its Japanese name, Ro Ho En symbolizes a handshake between the two cities, a bond that began in 1976. 

Ro is the Japanese word for “heron,” a bird much like the Phoenix bird and the symbol for Himeji. Ho is the Japanese name given to the phoenix bird. En is Japanese for “garden.” 

Himeji Mayor Matsuji Totani suggested the park in 1987 to deepen the friendship between the two cities. Phoenix master gardener Mits Murakami, 81, calls its creation a lesson in patience, since nothing much happened for a long time after it was first proposed. When it received funding through a 1988 bond issue, the work proceeded slowly. Japanese architects journeyed to Arizona quarries near Jerome, Superior, Congress and Florence to handpick the 1,500 tons of rocks that line footpaths and the streambeds, including the main waterfall. 

Their placement in the garden was meticulous. Neither a single rock, nor a single plant, was placed without the permission of a Japanese architect. 


There are countless anecdotes of the architects literally moving rocks a quarter of an inch back and forward, so that water would flow over it in a specific way. So that the water flows naturally, it begins in the “mountain region” — an arrangement of boulders — and flows through the “canyon region” to the “lowlands,” where it creates a pond shaped like the Japanese character kokoro, or heart. Even though the city is now contemplating cuts in its operating budget, most likely the garden would not be directly affected, said Phoenix Parks and Recreation Director David Urbinato. Moreover, he said, the garden has the backing of an active citizens committee, the Japanese Friendship Garden Committee. Besides the garden itself, the bond issue also will fund a viewing pavilion, entry building and restrooms. Shortly after arriving from Japan on Wednesday afternoon, Hirose, 53, and his small delegation of architects made a beeline for the garden. “We have a pattern,” said parks supervisor Mark Lamm. “First stop is the garden. It prepares them to think at night.”

On Thursday morning, the architects strolled along the garden’s winding paths. They watched and listened to the garden in progress. “In an American garden,” said architect Koichi Hara through an interpreter, “you can see in one view. In a Japanese garden, the view might be blocked by a tree, so you enjoy the sound of the garden and the stream.” Added city recreation coordinator Lani Auwen, “It’s hide and seek. There’s hidden things and you seek them out.”


Left: In addition to serving on the JACL-AZ Board of Directors, Masako Takiguchi (1932-2018) served as vice chair of the Japanese Friendship Garden Committee that helped raise $800,000 in private donations to support the construction of the garden.

Middle: Eric Bache of Norquay Construction (left), Neil Kirby, a volunteer, and Takeshi Hirose, an architect from Himeji, Japan, work on the stream that will flow through the garden. (Arizona Republic, 2002)

Right: In addition to serving on the JACL-AZ Board of Directors, Masako Takiguchi (1932-2018) served as vice chair of the Japanese Friendship Garden Committee that helped raise $800,000 in private donations to support the construction of the garden.


“It (the garden) will be wonderful, not just for Phoenix but for the state and the people who
visit. Everybody will be coming here to relax, contemplate. It will be everybody’s garden.”
– Masako Takiguchi (1932-2018)

Source: Arizona Republic, May 1, 1996

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