Cultivating a Japanese Oasis in Fairmount Park

November 17, 2023 | by Lauren Griffin

A view of Shofuso and its koi pond on a crisp fall day. | Photo courtesy of Giulia Ciofini, The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

As visitors enjoy the bike paths, hiking trails, and greenery of Fairmount Park, they are also invited to explore the historic houses that dot its landscape. East Fairmount Park has an array of Colonial and Federal-style mansions, but there is a house of a different style tucked away in West Fairmount Park behind the Please Touch Museum. Shofuso, a 17th-century style traditional Japanese guesthouse has been in the park since 1958. Even longtime locals are often surprised to learn that Shofuso exists. While the gardens offer a peaceful respite from the bustling city, Shofuso is more than a pretty picture. It is a unique architectural gem, a site of cultural exchange and education, and a community space for Japanese nationals and Philadelphia’s Japanese American community.

Centennial Roots

An Autochrome by Emil Albrecht taken in 1912 shows the 14th-century Nio-mon, or temple gate, was moved to Fairmount Park in 1908. | Photo courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

The expansive Fairmount Park was home to the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. Countries from around the world were invited to construct elaborate structures and displays for the first official world’s fair in the United States. It was during the exhibition that Japan made its American debut.

From 1603 until 1853, the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan enacted a policy of Sakoku, or “locked country,” in which trade and contact with other countries was severely restricted. This era ended after American Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed warships over to Japan and strong-armed the country into opening up to Western trade. The deal was struck, and Japan once again entered the global stage.

Given its long seclusion, many attendees of the exhibition were particularly curious about Japan and its culture. The Japanese Pavilion gave visitors a chance to learn about Japanese art and architecture, purchase traditional wares, or wander a Japanese-style garden. The garden around the pavilion was the first Japanese-style garden in North America. Following the Centennial, Japonisme took hold. Americans became enthralled with Japanese decorative arts and design.

Elements of Japan lingered in the park after the Centennial. In 1907, a 14th-century Buddhist temple gate, called a Nio-mon, was moved to the same location. Philadelphians Samuel Vauclain and John Converse had seen the Nio-mon on display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri. They purchased the gate and brought it home to Philadelphia. The Nio-mon stood guard in the park until 1955 when it burned down due to a discarded cigarette. With the Nio-mon gone, there was no longer a physical marker of the historic presence of Japan in the park.

A House in the Garden

Shofuso on display in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art courtyard, 1953-54. | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

In 1953, Modern Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura designed Shofuso, which means “Pine Breeze Villa.” The structure was commissioned for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) focused on mid-century modern American architecture. The first two houses in the series were designed by Marcel Breur and Gregory Ains. MoMA curator Arthur Drexler recognized the impact of traditional Japanese architectural styles and, with help from John D. Rockefeller, the two pursued building a Japanese dwelling to complete their housing series.

The house was about more than just aesthetics. It was also a diplomatic project. World War II still loomed large in the public conscious, and the occupation of Japan by American forces had just ended in 1952. Shofuso was a gift from Japan to the United States as a sign of peace and friendship. Having a traditional Japanese structure on display in the middle of New York City was an attempt to alter the perception of Japan through arts and culture.

Some of the team that built Shofuso circa 1950s. In the center, fourth from the left, is Isao Okumura, the carpenter that oversaw Shofuso’s reconstruction in Philadelphia. | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

The house consists of three architectural styles. The main house is shoin-zukuri style, which is a residential style featuring a study room common among military and religious castes in the 1600s. The main house is paired with a minka style kitchen, which highlights styles typical for farmers or merchant classes. The third style of architecture, sukiya, is on display in the teahouse. This style embraces the design philosophy of wabi-sabi through its rusticity, asymmetrical ceiling, and harmony with its natural surroundings. The house was constructed out of hinoki wood using traditional carpentry methods and hand tools.

After the exhibition at MoMA concluded, Shofuso was deconstructed and moved to Philadelphia. Given the historic presence of Japan in the city, and the destruction of the Nio-mon, Philadelphia was selected over other cities vying for the house. A Japanese-style garden, designed by master gardener Tansai Sano, was built around the house, in addition to a large koi pond. In 1958, Shofuso once again opened its doors to the public in its new permanent home. 

City (Mis)management

Women in kimono enjoying the garden as visitors inside celebrate Shofuso’s Philadelphia opening in 1958. | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Shofuso was a gift to Philadelphia, and it became the City’s responsibility. For the first two decades of the house being in Fairmount Park, the Fairmount Park Commission operated Shofuso.

Japanese locals were hired to give tours of the house dressed in kimonos. Japanese tea ceremonies were also conducted on site. Beyond that, very little was done to contextualize the space. Shofuso became a fetishized art installation that provided an “exotic” backdrop for a non-Japanese audience.

Evidence of vandalism throughout Shofuso in the 1960s. | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

The security and preservation of the house was an afterthought. With no fencing or locks on the doors, Shofuso was repeatedly vandalized throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Original murals painted by Higashiyama Kaii were destroyed, and, at one point, a fire was started inside the house. Shofuso fell into such disrepair that the Japanese government threatened to take back their gift. Negotiations began in 1974 to repair the house in advance of the upcoming 1976 Bicentennial.

The ‘76 Corporation withheld funds from the restoration project, in part claiming that the Japanese American community in Philadelphia was too small to warrant its investment. As a result, the project was fully funded by Japanese organizations. Shofuso was restored, but it was clear that the City had been a less than ideal caretaker.

Philadelphia’s Nisei Take Control

Dr. Mary Watanabe was the first president of the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden and de facto executive director. With her husband, Dr. Warren Watanabe, she worked to bring more Nisei into the organization, forging new relationships between Shofuso and other Philadelphia cultural communities. | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

The Japanese American population in Philadelphia peaked at 7,000 in 1946. During World War II, the American Friends Service Committee and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) created the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council in Philadelphia. In an effort to find ways to help citizens find ways out of WWII incarceration camps, the organization gave eligible students scholarships to local universities like Swarthmore College. It also helped secure work for adults. A small community of first and second generation Japanese Americans relocated in Philadelphia and were welcomed in places like the Philadelphia Hostel in West Philadelphia. After the war was over, many returned to their homes on the West Coast.

Given that the population was relatively small, there were few spaces for the Japanese American community to call their own. They eventually turned their sites on Shofuso, in all its disrepair. Under the leadership of Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) Philadelphian Mary Watanabe, a group of concerned citizens came together in December of 1981 to discuss the formation of the nonprofit friends group, Friends of the Japanese House and Garden (FJHG), to assume maintenance of the house and garden.

Louise Maehara (left), a member of the first board of directors, was called Shofuso’s “house mom.” | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Many of the individuals that became part of the first board of directors of FJHG were also members of the local Japanese American Citizens League chapter, a civil rights organization. They fought for different civil rights causes and also participated in the Redress Movement. This movement was successful in securing a formal apology and reparations for the forced removal and mass incarceration during World War II. Their activism in politics influenced their labor at Shofuso as they worked to recontextualize the space as one for the Japanese and Japanese American community.

In addition to preserving the house and garden, FJHG hosted multiple festivals that reflected traditional Japanese holidays like Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day), Tanabata (the Star Festival, and Obon, a Buddhist harvest festival. It sold Japanese food and folk crafts, conducted tea ceremonies, and gave tours of the house to local school groups. FJHG demonstrated traditional cultural practices like calligraphy, origami, taiko drumming, and folk dancing. Shofuso was transformed into a cultural center that encouraged visitors to learn about Japan on a deeper level.

Okaeri (Welcome Home)

Taeko Shervin, a member of the first board of directors, enjoys some food after a cleaning day at Shofuso. Shervin conducted Japanese tea ceremonies at Shofuso for over 30 years. | Photo courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

An exhibit at Shofuso called Okaeri (Welcome Home): The Nisei Legacy at Shofuso highlights the individuals of the original FJHG and its important contributions to Shofuso. The group’s labor and care of the house is framed as activism, and the exhibit includes oral history interviews that feature the voices of members and those of their descendants. Okaeri means welcome home in Japanese, and the auditory nature of the exhibit invites their presence back into the space once again.

At Shofuso, the Nisei community embraced and celebrated their Japanese cultural heritage and collectively healed from the trauma of wartime incarceration. FJHG merged with The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia and still exists today. The organization has blossomed into one that encompassed Japanese expats, Nisei, Sansei, and other non-Japanese supporters. While each came to the space for different reasons, they all left a lasting impact on the site, ensuring that Shofuso would remain a Japanese cultural oasis for future generations of many diverse backgrounds.

Full disclosure: Lauren Griffin is the assistant curator of the exhibition “Okaeri: The Nisei Legacy at Shofuso.”


About the Author

Lauren Griffin is a public historian based in Philadelphia and alum of Temple University. Originally from West Virginia, she also reports on the history, people, and folkways of her home state.


  1. Thomas Tim Winant says:

    I was also on the first Board of Directors as Treasurer, along with my colleague, the late Bill Tyler from Penn. Mary Watanabe was the engine for all the good that we accomplished in those early years.

  2. Ted says:

    Fun fact: in 1976 (I think), architects who came to Philadelphia to repair Shofuso stayed at the Chamounix Hostel in the park!

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