A better tomorrow

Guy is a volunteer guide at Vancouver’s Nitobe Memorial Garden, widely considered to be among the finest Japanese gardens outside of Japan. It commemorates Dr. Inazo Nitobe, arguably the world’s most famous Asian when he died in 1933.

Though few of us will merit a memorial garden, we all share the modest hope that we’ve mattered enough to at least be fondly remembered after death. But our collective memory, even of our most celebrated, is painfully short. I led a group of thirty visiting Japanese student-teachers through the garden just before COVID shut everything down. Not one of them knew who Nitobe was, despite his face having been on Japan’s 5,000-Yen notes since 1984. “Not that surprising”, commented one of the Canadian guides, “I know nothing about Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose face is on our own five dollar bill.”

Dr. Inazo Nitobe

Born into a samurai family in 1862, Nitobe would become one of Japan’s great Renaissance men. Renowned agriculturalist, diplomat, educator, and pacifist, his circle of friends and acquaintances included some of the greats of his day: Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Lindbergh, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey. Founder and president of the Tokyo Woman’s Christian University —yes, a women’s university, in 1918! still thriving today— champion of unions & universal healthcare, father of Taiwanese sugar, his crowning achievement was as Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations and director in charge of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation from 1919 to 1926.


Despite all his achievements, Inazo Nitobe was acquainted with separation and loss from an early age. Five years old when his father died, Inazo would lose his grandfather at nine, his mother at eighteen, then both his brothers. Most devastating was the death in infancy of his only child in 1892, leading to a severe breakdown in 1897 that would force him to stop working for three years. In his later years, as Japan was growing increasingly militaristic and aggressive, Nitobe’s criticism of the military provoked a severe backlash, and even death threats. Then, in 1932, the Japanese government pressured him to take, what he called, a “disagreeable journey” to America.


Some Japanese words are difficult to translate. “Joucho“, literally “umbilical cord of the mind”, is often translated as “emotion”. But joucho more accurately expresses a particular feeling of connection, as to our mother when we were born. “If you don’t feel joucho, it’s not a real Japanese garden.” said Junji Shinada, Nitobe garden’s custodian for nearly 30 years. So years ago, when the Japanese Crown Prince uttered, “I am in Japan”, upon entering the Nitobe Garden, I believe he was touched by joucho. And I share a similar connection at one particular bench here. 

Distant Whispers

Japanese gardens are meant for contemplation. But this bench is especially puzzling. Not only does it sit at a dead-end, the shrubs directly opposite quite effectively block the view of the rest of the garden. Mysteriously, this path is not on any of the 35 surviving plans left by landscape architect Kannosuke Mori. Mori died in Japan the same year his masterpiece was completed, leaving no clue as to why he created this impasse.

The key may lie in the Shinto belief that spirits inhabit every natural object. Traditional Japanese garden designers who respect this principle try to discern where garden elements “desire to be placed”. One of his contemporaries remembered Mori pausing on the site, as if “listening to something I couldn’t hear… he would stand motionless for minutes just staring at and apparently lining up I-don’t-know-what“. What was Mori straining to hear?

Mary and Dr. Inazo Nitobe circa 1932

A heart Filled with Grief

Nitobe’s wife, Mary, had sailed with him on that late 1932 journey to San Francisco. In December, she suffered a heart attack and could no longer travel. Pressed with many commitments back home, Inazo returned to Japan, leaving Mary to convalesce in Pasadena. Now 70 years old and in failing health himself, he again had to endure forced separation.

Nitobe’s yatsuhashi bridge and iris marsh 

Not far from my dead-end bench, and not visible unless you stand, a simple “yatsuhashi” zigzag bridge spans a small marsh of irises. The irises were transplanted here from the Imperial Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, and such bridges are common in traditional Japanese gardens. Together they recall a poem from the tenth-century anthology, Ise Monogatari. In it, its central character rests beside a yatsuhashi in the famous iris marshes of Mikawa province. Also separated from his wife, he composes the following verses:

I have a beloved wife / familiar as the skirt / of a well-worn robe / and so this distant journeying / fills my heart with grief.

I like to think that what moves me at this spot is an echo of what Mori too must have felt: Nitobe’s grief. The result was an example of spontaneous design.

To Everything a Season

Nitobe did return to North America. His last plea for international cooperation would be his address at an Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Banff, Alberta. He particularly looked forward to afterwards returning home with Mary (who could now travel again). Sadly, Nitobe suffered his final separation in Victoria, BC, where he died unexpectedly a few days later. Though reunited with Mary, he would not see Japan again.

But neither would he see his League of Nations mature into the United Nations, nor his International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC) blossom into UNESCO.

So, for me, this garden is ultimately a testament to hope, not grief. Yes, one corner recalls bitter separation. But through his disciples, Nitobe’s dream of peace and international goodwill continues in the organizations he helped to establish. Just as one must look past the irises, past grief, to fully appreciate this magnificent memorial to Nitobe’s legacy, so too I’m reminded that we should not let today’s troubles dampen our hope for a better tomorrow.

ICIC (League of Nations) between 1924 and 1927. Left-to-right: H.Lorentz, E.Borel, G.Oprescu, A.Einstein, unknown, Reynold, J.Luchaire, unknown, J.Destrée, I.Nitobe. ( / Unknown author / CC BY-SA)


This is the fourth HG-member article in our Celebration of (Retired) Life series. We welcome any uplifting, funny, inspiring, or otherwise simply interesting story, profile, or bit of whimsy. To share with our other retirees, simply email your 500- to 1,000-word piece to HG-Editor@RRC.CA.

Categories: All, HG Life, Volunteering

1 reply »

  1. Loved the description and history of the garden Guy. Next time I am in Vancouver I will make a point of visiting it. Thanks.

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