Shofuso: A Japanese house supported by Philadelphia’s Nikkei community

Shofuso in Spring. photo by Sean Marshall Lin

Less than a decade after the war, the Museum of Modern Art in New York asked Japanese architect Junzō Yoshimura to build them a traditional Japanese house for display. Featuring a special hinoki bark roof and built in the shoin-zukuri (temple guesthouse) style, the Shofuso Japanese house would be a unique piece of architecture even in Japan and more-so in its current home at West Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.

According to Rob Buscher, formerly the associate director of organizational culture at the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, Yoshimura employed 17th century techniques to first construct the house in Nagoya before dismantling it and transporting it to New York in 6,000 separate crates.

“For 1954 to 1955, over two seasons, the house became the most visited art exhibit in all of New York City, attracting over 200,000 patrons. And after the exhibit closed, Japan Society in New York and MoMA began looking for a final location for Shofuso to be installed,” Busher told the Nichi Bei News.

Buscher, who currently serves as a consultant for JASGP as he takes on his new role as executive director of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium, said the park served as a poignant setting for the house. The sprawling 1,400-acre watershed park was the site of the 1876 Centennial Exposition where Japan first participated in an international exhibition. The house, disassembled again and reassembled, was situated next to the Japanese garden built for the exposition and reopened in 1958 to the Philadelphian community.

While the building opened in 1958, however, the local Japanese American community did not come to care for the historic house until the 1970s. Buscher said most of Philadelphia’s Nikkei community came following the war as Japanese Americans resettled East as they came out of the wartime concentration camps, and while the Japanese house and gardens offered a good spot for spring hanami parties or other activities, the house did not serve as a focal point for the community until it was vandalized amid the depressed 1970s.

With a depressed economy, the city government also neglected the Japanese house and the building fell into disrepair, as well as faced several instances of vandalism. Buscher said someone had lit a fire while another case slashed murals by a renown Nihonga painter Kaii Higashiyama beyond saving. With the neglect, the Japanese government threatened to take the house back from the city.

“That was the moment when the Nisei community in Philadelphia sort of stepped up and said to the city government, ‘Look, this is really a national treasure quality piece of architecture, and you’re not treating it as such. But with our help, we can try to reach out to the Japanese corporate partners that have started to settle in the Philadelphia-metro region to see if their Japanese offices would be able to sponsor the restoration of the house.’ And in fact, they were able to do that in time for the 1976 Bicentennial Exposition,” Buscher said.

Following the restoration, the Nisei involved in the effort felt they needed to continue to be engaged, lest the building fall into disrepair again, and Buscher said the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden was thus formally established in 1981 under the leadership of Mary Watanabe, an educator based out of the University of Pennsylvania.

“She really was the brains or the person behind everything,” Teresa Maebori, a now-retired school teacher and former active leader within the Philadelphia chapter and the National Japanese American Citizens League, said. “… So I think she just used her contact list to get people involved. So people like Louise Maehara was one of her personal friends and … she knew the people who would be most important in terms of helping to launch Friends of the Japanese House and Garden at Shofuso.”

Maebori said Maehara handled the day-to-day work at the house, especially after Watanabe passed away. Meanwhile, Buscher said Reiko Gaspar, another teacher, developed programming for the site. Through their work they opened Shofuso to both non-Japanese audiences and Japanese Americans alike.

Buscher, who researched the Nisei involvement with Shofuso, added that Watanabe’s plans to form the organization may have also been a strategic effort in the 1980s, as anti-Japanese sentiments rose amid a trade war and while Japanese Americans campaigned for Redress. The Philadelphia chapter of the JACL featured a number of Redress Movement leaders within the civil rights organization at the time.

“We understood that this was most likely a very strategic and tactical move, and that things that they could do in the organization, like JACL are not things that they would do for a cultural, public facing organization, like Friends of the Japanese House and Garden, but it still played a role in building empathy for the Japanese American community,” Buscher said.

Today, the house, often mistaken for a “Japanese tea house,” hosts a number of Japanese cultural programs, including tea ceremonies and ikebana, as well as a historical exhibition on the Japanese Americans who rallied to preserve the house.
While the Nisei who spearheaded the house’s rehabilitation and maintenance through the latter quarter of the 20th century have mostly passed on, the building remains within the care of Philadelphia’s Japanese community, albeit by a new generation of caretakers with a new set of challenges. As the members of the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden aged out, the group eventually merged in 2016 with the Japan America Society, which was formed in 1994 and focused more on the business and educational ties of the two nations. Buscher said many of the Nikkei leaders in the organization today are Shin-Nikkei, Japanese nationals who have settled in the region after the war from Japan or their children.

Subaru’s American headquarters is located in Camden, N.J., while some 470 Japanese-owned companies operated in the state, according to Buscher. Among the newcomer leaders are Kazumi Teune, the current executive director of JASGP, who is a Shin-Issei who settled in Philadelphia for marriage.

According to Teune, around 2,000 Nikkei live in Philadelphia, among them, many of the Japanese who come to the region move there for business and education, staying for only 4-5 years before moving on.

“So we don’t have (a) consulate general of Japan in Philadelphia,” Teune said. “We didn’t come with a massive group. … We move constantly. Business people come and go and students, we have so many universities, academic institutions and hospitals, that’s (a) wonderful system here, but they don’t stay permanently. So even Japanese Americans here are moving.”

Because of that, and the humility of the Nisei, Buscher said much of the institutional knowledge of the Nisei who worked on the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden was lost over the years until he started going over old meeting records and documents to put together “Okaeri, Welcome Home: The Nisei Legacy of Shofuso.”

“I was vaguely aware that there were some Japanese Americans who had been involved with the space, but I thought it was a pretty limited scale,” Buscher said “… I came on a typewritten board roster from 1984 for the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden, and I recognized half the names on there as some of the Nisei leaders who unfortunately have now all passed, but were instrumental in the advocacy work that JACL Philadelphia did during the Redress Movement, that I had also written about previously. So talking to Teresa and then learning about some of the other board members who were still living from the ‘80s and the ‘90s, I pieced together this history.”

According to Buscher 15,000 people have seen “Okaeri” since the exhibit opened last year, three months before the house closed during the winter, and the nonprofit plans to continue showing it through this year as the JACL prepares to host its annual convention in Philadelphia this year.

Meanwhile, Teune said she hopes to share Shofuso with a wider audience, as well as secure more funds for its maintenance. The special hinoki bark roofing needs regular maintenance every 20 years and a replacement every 40 years. With the last replacement costing about $2 million in the late 1990s as a “last hurrah” by the Nisei leaders of the Friends group, JASGP is hoping to secure funding for the roof’s replacement within the decade.

“Very few Japanese gardens, like the one in Portland and in Chicago, and maybe Florida are successful, but we are not that bad,” Teune said. “We have enough admissions, spring up ’til the fall, but not good enough.”

To help bring more attention to the Shofuso, Teune said she hopes to make the garden known not only in the Philadelphia and Japanese American community as Buscher has done with educational programs, but also in Japan as well.

“Our hope is to be more known in Japan, too. Because the house was made in Japan, and at that time, after World War II, it was a lot of financial contributions, in 1954 was 10 years after World War II. Most people didn’t even have enough to eat, but they’ve spent so much time and money to make this happen, and many corporations, which I didn’t know that Japanese corporations contributed, and Japan-America Society in Tokyo helped a lot to make this happen to go to MoMA and to Philadelphia. So that’s the thing, my last dream before my retirement, is that we make Shofuso more known in Japan.”

The Shofuso Japanese House and Garden is open from spring through fall. The 2024 season will be open through Oct. 27 on Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays from Nov. 2 through Dec. 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit https://japanphilly.org/shofuso/.

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