The Taiko Bashi (Drum Bridge), one of the Japanese Tea Garden’s main attractions. (Photos by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Dear Editor,

A few weeks ago an article was published by J.K. Yamamoto called “The Sea of Tranquility” (Oct. 13 Rafu Shimpo). The article, in my opinion, was flawed not by not by any fault of J.K. Yamamoto’s, as what he stated is what the information San Francisco Parks and Recreation wants the public to believe, but when I attempted to correct him, I felt disrespected.

So now I write to you in hopes that your readers will understand that this is a case of “there are always two sides to every story.”

In 1995, I discovered that my relative Shinshichi Nakatani’s beautiful Drum Bridge and Bell Gate were on permanent display in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. In 1894, San Francisco hosted the California Midwinter International Exposition. Shinshichi Nakatani was selected to design and build the Drum Bridge (Taiko Bashi) for the World Expo.

He built the bridge in Japan, dismantled it and brought back with him. Halfway through completion, the Expo ran out of funds. Shinshichi left San Francisco and returned to Japan. He sold off personal land holdings and brought the money back with him to complete the project.

After the Expo was over, the decision to donate the bridge and gate to the City of San Francisco was made. The bridge and gate have been there ever since.

My story begins with my personal journey of trying to get Shinshichi Nakatani his due recognition as a master shrine builder of the Drum Bridge and Bell Gate in the Japanese Tea Garden. When I discovered Shinshichi’s work was located in San Francisco, I immediately went for a visit. I was amazed at its beauty — and honestly, without the Drum Bridge and the Bell Gate, it is just another garden.

But, while I was proud, I was disappointed at the lack of recognition for Shinshichi Nakatani. It appeared to me that the entire garden was being credited to the Hagiwara family, starting in 1895 (notice that is one year after the World Expo). I decided that if I wanted to get Shinshichi his recognition, I was going to need proof. My word alone would not suffice.

I traveled to UCLA’s Asian American Studies but they did not have the information I sought. I then I decided to travel to Japan, back to Shinshichi’s and my ancestral home. I contacted my relative Yoshie Nakatani, who had paperwork and photographs — exactly what I needed to prove my case to the San Francisco Parks and Recreation.

Upon my return, I presented my evidence, and after five years I got my plaque acknowledging the Drum Bridge. It was dedicated on Sept. 26, 2000.

I was told it would be mounted onto a rock next to the bridge, but at the dedication ceremony I was shocked that they had mounted it under the step well of the bridge. Every person visiting the bridge had to step on my family’s name to get onto the bridge. I immediately reported my dismay to deaf ears.

It would take another dozen years, numerous individuals trying to assist me, and excuses from San Francisco Parks and Recreation that bordered on the ridiculous.

I was told the plaque was lost, but if I paid $10,000 I could get the plaque moved.

I was told the plaque was damaged when it was removed from the bridge and for safety reasons the plaque was moved 20 feet behind the bridge in a bamboo grove. Now, anyone visiting the bridge had to walk off the path and into the bamboo grove to see Nakatani’s name.

Finally, the National Japanese American Historical Society got involved and the plaque has a new home — where it should be.

While I have left out many details and individual names, my goal is not to “out” anyone but instead provide my personal viewpoint that this Japanese Tea Garden is beautiful but it began with Shinshichi Nakatani’s contribution to the California Midwinter International Exposition in1894, and subsequently the donation to the City of San Francisco.

I am not seeking personal glorification but Shinshichi’s rightful place in history.

Warmest regards,

Katsuya “Kats” Nakatani


J.K. Yamamoto responds:

Since the focus of my article was on what is happening at the garden now, not its history, I did not examine the Hagiwara plaque during my most recent visit. Mr. Nakatani correctly points out that the plaque says the Hagiwara family took care of the garden from 1895 to 1942, so apparently it was inaccurate for me to say that Hagiwara created the garden.

Golden Gate Park’s website gives the following account: “The historical roots of the Japanese Tea House were firmly planted in 1894 when the Japanese Tea Garden was established to showcase a Japanese Village for the California Midwinter International Exposition (also referred to as the World’s Fair). Today, the Japanese Tea Garden is heralded as the oldest public Japanese garden in all of the United States.

“While the majority of the Golden Gate Park design and growth is credited to a man who is said to have planted two million trees in his lifetime, John McLaren allowed another to design and groom the Japanese Tea Garden. In an attempt to share a piece of his culture, an affluent Japanese landscape designer named Makoto Hagiwara wished to transform the temporary World’s Fair exhibit into a permanent fixture of the Golden Gate Park.

“In the end, Hagiwara was responsible for erecting the Tea House, the garden, and the pavilions. He constructed a large public arena, as well as a small private setting for his family to dwell while he looked after the greenery. The garden was eventually expanded to reach close to five acres, exceeding the original space by four acres of land. Hagiwara not only perfected the landscaping, but also imported a wealth of authentic tributes to his homeland, including rare Japanese birds, goldfish, bronze items, and plants.”

Since there is no mention of Shinshichi Nakatani in this particular history, I can see how his family would be upset. The dedication of a plaque next to the Taiko Bashi was a big step toward correcting this oversight.

If Mr. Nakatani wants his family to be included in the official histories and for something in the garden to be named after Shinshichi Nakatani, I’m all for it. Mr. Nakatani’s website,, has sufficient information to back up his claims.

My problem with the comments that Mr. Nakatani posted on our website is that he attacked me personally and professionally for not being an advocate for his family and against the Hagiwaras in this matter — which is not my place, particularly since the garden is in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. If there is anything further that needs to be done, please contact The Nichi Bei Weekly and the Japantown community leaders in San Francisco.

(Published in The Rafu Shimpo on Nov. 6, 2012)

A plaque honoring Shinshichi Nakatani was dedicated 12 years ago.

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  1. Dear M.r .J.K .Yamamoto, Your wrong, I’m not a writer. Far from it. I retired from MTA as a bus mechanic. And. E.O.D. man and a welder in the Army. To me a writer is like a lawyer so I’m not good with words like you are.
    However, you claim Mr. Makoto Hagiwara built the Pavilion and the Tea House. Let me tell you some thing to you. I am claiming all the structurers on the Official photos of the 1894, CMWE Japanese Village photos taken by Asia West Taber was built by Master Shrine Builder: Shinshichi Nakatani and his shrine builders. I have a photo of the Tea House. In that photo Shinshichi Nakatani’s younger carpenter is sitting on a bench and near the roof of this o=particular Tea House is a sign “Tea and Cake ten cent”. And get this. I also, have another photo of this same man (Hochi-san) who is sitting in the tea House, (Cha-ya), Hochi-san is standing next to the WATER FALL. Now, according to Mr. Ed Schuster, a retired former Tea Garden’s Supervisor. He said to me, they found that water fall years ago………. covered with plants!!!! And during the 100th Celebration, its tape mentioned “Hagiwara turning on it’s waterfall valve………..”big deal”. (Who and when was it built”? During the One Hundred year Celebration, not a word about the original builders…..nada …………….,zip!!! It is all “Hagiwara”!!
    Back to the “fortune Cookies”. Hagiwara family has been claiming since mid 20;s. Then back to 22, 18, 15. and so on until 1894! Eight? Don’t forget you did too!!!!. JJK. Don’t be a gullible fool!!!!
    “Fortune Cookies”. Before, Nakamichi-san came into this fortune Cookies stuff, I already had this particular photo. We showed it to a Japanese news reporter. Mr. Katayama Kay=ts Nakatani was shook up, saying whoooo, “Chee …Caeekee….ji….sento!! haaaaaaaaaaaa!. Yes, he came over to “Shoya” Nakatani house……….a home Shinsgichi Nakatani built is what I under stand. You see, my father had the Shrine Builder’s books……….it includes my Grand Father and his father’s home addrees. My great grand father was Shinshichi Nakatani’s oldest brother. Takuichi is my grand father and Ichisuke is my great grand father. Stay well, Kats Nakatani