Symbols & Signifiers


Alarm Rock

The angular rock just before the Nitobe lantern alerts us to an importance presence – in this case, the lantern itself.


The benches in the garden are generally wide enough to seat five. This is the traditional number of the tea party – a host and four guests.


There are six water-crossings in the garden, each with its own significance. The 77-log bridge is of particular note as it is symbolic of Dr. Nitobe’s stated desire to be “a bridge over the Pacific.” A stone plaque just before the bridge carries an inscription that alerts us to this fact. The zig-zag bridge by the iris pond is known as the “devil-losing bridge.” Such bridges are found in both China and Japan and refer to a belief that evil spirits, which by tradition are thought to travel in straight lines, cannot follow anyone across such a bridge.

Falling Sunlight

At the right-hand side of the “mountain path,” just past the Nitobe lantern, is a rock with a cleft. At 4:00 pm on October 15, the day of Nitobe’s death, the sun shines through the Nitobe lantern and strikes the rock cleft.

Island of Eternity

The island is in the shape of a turtle, a symbol of longevity. Strategically placed rocks represent the turtle’s flippers, head and tail. On the island is a prominent flat-topped rock, the rahai seki, which may be intended to represent Dr. Nitobe’s soul.


The Nitobe lantern is rich with symbols, including the zodiacal signs, a lotus blossom – the flower of paradise and symbol of purity – and a dog, Nitobe’s birth sign.

Rice Bowl

Perched on the top of the family viewing pavilion is an upturned rice bowl, likely symbolizing family life and the feeding of the family.

Tea Garden Gate

The bamboo gate of the tea garden has seven upright canes and six spaces. These represent heaven (the number seven) and earth (the number six).

Zodiacal Signs

Professor Mori likely used the two zodiacal lanterns, the Nitobe and the marriage lanterns, to indicate the cycles of time. The lanterns are located on an approximately north-south axis. The 12 zodiacal signs or “earthly branches” are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. These earthly branches form the basis of a counting system for the 60-year cycle of the Sinitic calendar. This cycle is made of five units: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal, each of 12 years. The earthly branches are used to count years within these 12-year periods. Dr. Nitobe was born in the penultimate year (dog) of the water part of the cycle and died in the year of the rooster. However, the 12 earthly branches have also been used to count the months of the year and the 12 double-hours of the day.


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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.

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