2009 / Dr. Takeo Uesugi: Designer of Japanese Gardens

Takeo Uesugi working

Dr. Takeo Uesugi, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. (Courtesy of the professor)

Cultural News, February 2009 Issue

By Takeshi Nakayama and Shige Higashi

Dr. Takeo Uesugi, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to the Design of Japanese Gardens Outside Japan on Saturday, March 28, 2009,  at the Long Beach Hilton Hotel during the International Conference on Japanese Gardens, to be held March 26-29, 2009, at California State University, Long Beach and the Hilton Hotel.

Japanese gardens are an international phenomenon. They are found in at least 53 countries; North America alone has more than 250. Despite their popularity and social function, there have been few regular forums for the direct exchange of ideas about them. The March 2009 conference at Long Beach is the first meeting of this theme.

Uesugi, who taught landscape architecture from 1970 to 2000 at Cal Poly Pomona, has designed numerous Japanese gardens throughout the country and pointed out that the Japanese garden is well received by Americans because its principles stress freedom. “More than 200 Japanese gardens have been built in the U.S. within the past 100 years. Many American people are fond of Japanese arts, gardens and architecture.”

Uesugi was born in Osaka in 1940 to a family of garden builders; his father was the family’s 13th generation garden builder and practiced the business until he was 33.  Thereafter, he became a Tenrikyo missionary for 50 years. Uesugi, the fifth son, is the only one to follow in his family’s tradition.

He studied landscape architecture under Tadashi Kubo at Osaka Prefecture University, and participated in a master’s program at Kyoto University in 1962-63. Coming to the United States in 1965, he earned his master’s degree in 1967 from the University of California at Berkeley.

Returning to Japan, he taught landscape architecture at Kyoto University in 1969-70. In 1970, he designed the Japan Pavilion at the Expo 70 in Osaka.

Uesugi returned to the U.S. in 1970 to teach at Cal Poly Pomona and became a full professor in 1982. He received his Ph.D. in landscape architecture in 1981 through correspondence studies from Kyoto University. While teaching at Cal Poly, he also designed Japanese gardens for a variety of clients.

“When I came to this country, I didn’t want to do just Japanese gardens,” he disclosed. “But then I had a client, David Swedlow of Corona Del Mar, who wanted me to design a Japanese garden in 1973-74. From there, I became specialized in doing California-style Japanese gardens.”

One of Uesugi’s designs most familiar to Southern Californians is the James Irvine Japanese Garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Uesugi received the National Landscape Award, presented by First Lady Nancy Reagan at White House ceremonies in 1981, recognizing his design of the James Irvine Japanese Garden.

This Japanese garden in downtown Los Angeles is currently being renovated under Uesugi’s direction. The garden has been re-graded to accommodate a public gathering and stage area. The waterfall has added a more efficient water system, and the garden has been re-planted, including a special variation of camellias from Alabama created by a Japanese American.

Chris Aihara, executive director of JACCC, said that she learned from Uesugi that a Japanese garden in the U.S. is like many things about Japanese American culture. “When it transfers across the sea, it cannot be a duplicate of what it was in Japan. For it to be vital, it has to reflect the new environment.”

Other Japanese gardens designed by Uesugi include the one at Hotel Nikko in Atlanta, the Japanese Friendship Garden at Balboa Park in San Diego, the George and Sakaye Aratani Japanese Garden at Cal Poly Pomona, the garden at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, as well as gardens for institutions, businesses and private residences in Kansas, Chicago, Alabama, Shanghai and throughout California.

The banquet to honor Uesugi will be held on Saturday, March 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Long Beach Hilton Hotel. The banquet will be the culminating event of the international conference. For information about attending the banquet or the conference, call (562) 985-2169 or email  jhiggins@csulb.edu.

Takeshi Nakayama is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Shige Higashi is Publisher and Editor of Cultural News.