Religion & Spirituality


Shintoism is one of the world’s most ancient religions and was the state religion of Japan until 1945. In Shintoism all symmetry and beauty in nature are manifestations of the gods. The essence of Shintoism is kami, the spirits present in all natural objects. Professor Mori conceived Nitobe Memorial Garden as a garden primarily in the Shinto tradition with cherry blossoms and exuberant natural vegetation rich in kami. Nitobe Garden contains an overt reference to Shinto tradition in the 33 steps on the path after the Nitobe lantern. These appear to represent the period of 30-33 days after the birth of a child at which celebration is made at a Shinto Shrine.


Many Japanese are both Buddhist and Shintoist and the two religions are considered compatible. The Zen tradition has considerably influenced Japanese gardens since the 13th century. The Zen concept of below-the-surface subtlety, or yugen, is evident in the understated nature of the best Japanese gardens, including Nitobe Garden. The garden has an overt reference to Buddhism in the figure of the Buddha carved at the base of the seven storey pagoda lantern.


The history of Christianity in Japan goes back to 1549 when the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier landed at Kagoshima. At first, numerous warlords converted, driven by a desire for Western firearms. Subsequently however, the new religion was suppressed, at times brutally, hence the covert worship at Oribe lanterns. Dr. Nitobe converted to Quakerism and was for most of his adult life a committed Christian. Mori appears to have noted this fact in the “remembering lantern” by the waiting pavilion. This is a so-called Oribe lantern, first designed by the notable tea-master, warrior and designer Oribe Furuta (1544-1615). At the base of this lantern, partly covered by earth, the figure of a Madonna is visible. Christian icons hidden at the base of Oribe lanterns enabled Japanese Christians to worship covertly.


Taoism is an ancient Chinese spiritual system pervasive in Eastern culture. An element of Taoism is the recognition of the yin-yang dualism. Yin is associated with the female principle: earth, yielding, softness and shade. Yang is associated with the male principle: sky, strength, angularity and light. They are not opposites – elements of yin are contained within yang and vice versa. Yin and yang can be expressed diagrammatically by the familiar “grand culmination” or yin-yang diagram: interlocking swirls of light and dark each containing an island of the reverse within it. Nitobe Memorial Garden appears to have a careful balance of yin and yang. Shady areas are balanced by open angular rocks next to smooth stones and tall trees by low moss. Copley even suggests overlaying a yin-yang diagram on a map of the garden to aid understanding. The island in the lake could be considered as the island of yang in a predominantly yin part of the garden, while the iris pond is the yin island in a predominantly yang part of the garden.


Copley, R.E. (1995) Darkened lanterns in the distant garden. Chapter 13 in: Nitobe Inazo, Japan’s Bridge across the Pacific. J.F. Howes (ed.). Boulder, Co., Westview Press.