New Japanese Garden Embodies Michigan’s Rich Cultural Ties with Japan

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by Chad Westra
Michigan's Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is now home to a Japanese garden modeled on gardens found in its sister city Shiga, Japan. Image: Flickr user Lola Audu

In late January, the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, located in the Western Michigan city of Grand Rapids, opened the exhibit, “Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan.” The event was the kickoff to a year-long focus on Japan, including the opening of a Japanese garden in June.

The garden, which has been under construction since 2012, will have an authentic Japanese teahouse, a Zen-style garden, and waterfalls, among other features. It is one of five other Japanese gardens throughout the state, with others located in Bloomfield Hills, Midland, Niles, East Lansing, and Saginaw.

The impetus behind the recently opened exhibit is to feature the art of the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, which holds a sister relationship with the State of Michigan. Formed in 1968, the Michigan-Shiga relationship is one of the oldest US-Japan partnerships, with the goal of increasing cross-cultural exchanges and business opportunities for the citizens of each state. 

Michigan, known as the Great Lakes State, shares geographical similarities with Shiga, which is home to Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Their special relationship is punctuated by the fact that out of more than 25 Michigan-Japan sister cities, 17 are with cities in Shiga.

The new Japanese art and garden exhibits at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids is an opportunity for Michiganders to learn more about the art and culture of its sister state, and further increase their unique ties. The Michigan-Shiga partnership has fostered numerous cultural exchanges over the years, including goodwill missions, a high school exchange program, and cultural events such as the annual Japan festival in Novi, MI. The two states also cooperated in hosting the first international conferences on lake conservation in 1984 and 1986, the first in Shiga and the second in Michigan. 

The most fruitful exchange between the two states has perhaps come from the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU), founded in 1989 and located in the city of Hikone, Shiga. Initially created to provide students from public universities in Michigan a chance to study in Japan, it now also draws students from a multitude of in-state institutions as well as the wider US, and allows students from Shiga to study at JCMU affiliated schools in Michigan. 

Chad Westra is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an undergraduate student at Calvin College.