Tanako Hagiwara, pictured with her son Doug Dawkins, lived at the Japanese Tea Garden when she was a young child. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Japanese American family at heart of beloved Golden Gate Park garden

The Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in North America, is a popular attraction with tourists and locals alike.

But few know that it was once also home to the man who designed it and his family — or that they were abruptly removed at the start of World War II and interned along with thousands of other Japanese Americans.

This month, as Recreation and Parks officials prepared for a $2 million spring renovation of the garden and its pagoda to celebrate its 125th anniversary, members of that family returned to the garden to talk about that dark chapter in its history and the man who helped create it.

Tanako Hagiwara was 4 years old when her family was relocated from their 17-room home in the garden, first to a camp at Tanforan in San Bruno, and later to Topaz Internment Camps.

Hagiwara, 81, has no specific memories of the garden or her internment, just vague recollections of the places. She remembers her childhood home that was torn down months after they left for Tanforan and replaced with a European-style sunken garden. She also remembers more bleak surroundings from her Topaz detention center.

“I remember the barbed-wire fences and sage brush, and all that kind of stuff,” Hagiwara said.

The family’s removal erased three generations of Hagiwara blood, sweat, tears and belongings.

From left, Doug Dawkins speaks with his mother Tanako Hagiwara, S.F. Recreation and Parks director Dennis Kern and gardener Steven Pitsenbarger at the garden. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Tanako’s great grandfather, Makoto Hagiwara, arrived in the U.S. from Japan in 1878 as one of the first notable Japanese immigrants, said his great-great-grandson Doug Dawkins. Makoto Hagiwara wasn’t the eldest son in his family, and had the opportunity to forge his own path. He took full advantage, and adapted quickly to the wild west of San Francisco.

A friend of Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren, Makoto Hagiwara took over as manager of what had been the “Japanese Village,” an exposition for the 1894 World’s Fair that at the fair’s conclusion was converted into the Japanese Tea Garden.

Despite his removal as manager in 1901 due to an anti-Asian immigrant amendment to the city charter, Makoto Hagiwara continued acting as a shadow architect and planner for the Japanese Tea Garden, carrying out his plans for the garden while he opened and operated a competing garden blocks away.

By 1906 he had been restored as manager by the Board of Supervisors, and in 1909 he built his family home in the garden. He continued expanding and improving the garden until his death in 1925.

The garden’s pagoda, exhibited during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in the Marina District, was moved at the exposition’s conclusion to the Japanese Tea Garden.

Dawkins, Tanako Hagiwara’s son, said he didn’t learn much about his family history until a ceremony in 1974, when local sculptor Ruth Asawa designed a plaque in the garden commemorating the contributions the Hagiwaras made to San Francisco.

“I didn’t know anything about it until I was about 12 or 13 years old,” Dawkins said, adding, “I actually became maybe more interested in the garden than my mother.”

Dawkins has since become a family historian of sorts and maintains connections with the current garden staff.

The destruction of their family home and the attack on Japanese-American culture that ensued in 1942 were no doubt traumatic to the Hagiwaras, but Dawkins and his mother harbor positive feelings toward the garden.

For one thing, it’s still here. Chicago’s Japanese garden was burned to the ground in anti-Japanese fervor at the outbreak of the war.

While the garden was rebranded as the “Oriental Garden,” and lost multiple buildings during the war, Dawkins said San Francisco could have done a lot worse.

Many of the Hagiwaras’ possessions, after negotiations with The City, were relocated to the home of family friend Samuel Newsom in Mill Valley. In the 1950s, however, many of those items were auctioned off.

The proceeds were used to make a down payment on the home in the Richmond District that Tanako Hagiwara lives in today. Tanako Hagiwara was a central figure in the City College of San Francisco women’s athletics department and continues working for the school part-time as an older adult educator.

“I taught every class except martial arts and football,” she said.

Steven Pitsenbarger, gardener captain at the Tea Garden, has attempted to restore the elements of Japanese culture that were lost during WWII.

“We have the weight of being more than just a garden,” said Pitsenbarger, who wants to maintain Makoto Hagiwara’s goal of giving visitors an authentic taste of Japanese horticulture.

The six- to nine-month renovation will be fully underway in April and improvements to the pagoda, which is in poor condition, are expected to begin as soon as next week.

mgorelick@sfexaminer.com

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