Religion and Spirituality


Shintoism is one of the worlds 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. The Nitobe Memorial Garden was conceived by Professor Mori as primarily a garden in the Shinto tradition, with cherry blossoms and exuberant natural vegetation rich in kami.

The Nitobe Memorial 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. Japanese gardens have been considerably influenced, at least since the 13th century, by the Zen tradition. The Zen concept of below-the-surface subtlety or yugen is evident in the understated suggestion of the best Japanese gardens, including Nitobe.

The Nitobe Memorial 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 Kageshima. At first, driven by a desire for Western firearms, numerous warlords converted. Subsequently however, the new religion was suppressed, at times brutally, hence the covert worship with Oribe lanterns.

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 extremely pervasive in Eastern culture. An element of Taoism is the recognition of the yin-yang dualism. Yin is associated with the female principle, with earth, yielding, softness, shade. Yang is associated with the male principle, with sky, strength, angularity, light. They are not opposites, as 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.

The Nitobe Memorial garden appears to have a careful balance of yin and yang. Shady areas are balanced by open; angular rocks by smooth stones; tall trees by low moss. Copley (1995) even suggests overlaying a yin-yang diagram on a map of the garden to aid understanding. One might consider that the island in the lake is 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.

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