Member Spotlight: the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden


Article by Eric Petersen, GPA Ambassador.

The Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, located in Fairmount Park, has attracted many Philadelphia-area residents since it opened to the public in 1958. However, few visitors to the exhibit are aware of the unique historical significance that has existed on its site, furthering Japanese and American collaboration for over 140 years. Japanese activity in Philadelphia can be traced to a visit by Prince Iwakura in 1872, as the Japanese royal led a delegation to study aspects of Philadelphia’s industrial and economic achievements. Although Japan established relations with the United States only two decades prior, Japanese officials were eager to learn more about American innovations in manufacturing and commerce in their attempts to modernize their country. After touring the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1872, the Japanese signed a treaty to expand their growing rail network, agreeing to import locomotives from Philadelphia. One delegate to the region, Shigenobu Okuma, founded the First National Bank of Japan upon returning to Asia, drawing upon the Western banking model Okuma encountered while in the United States. With the help of Philadelphia resources, the first independent bank in Asia was founded, granting Japan more flexibility in building their economy.

Just a few years later, Japan would establish a permanent landmark in Philadelphia during the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, when international delegations arrived for America’s first World’s Fair. Of the fifty-six nations that participated in the convention, Japan held one of the largest delegations, setting up their pavilion only a short distance away from the current location of the Shofuso House. In addition to learning about Philadelphia’s economic innovations, Meiji representatives also sought to highlight their own recent achievements, and even received 142 awards from the Exhibition. The Japanese government saw their time in Philadelphia as a success, and even organized a similar exhibition in Tokyo the following year.

While the Japanese pavilion created a permanent marker of Japanese influence in Philadelphia, little upkeep was assigned to the area until 1904, when a 14th-century style Japanese Pagoda was gifted to Fairmount Park after the conclusion of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. The arch was placed adjacent to the Japanese pavilion, and in 1905, the city added a Japanese garden to the space. The display served as a public display of friendship between Japan and the United States for decades until a fire engulfed the pagoda in 1955. Two years later, the structure was replaced by the Shofuso House, a traditional Japanese home. The building was accompanied by a redesigned garden created by landscape architect Tansai Sano. The garden has been a popular international attraction for Fairmount Park, and has been renovated several times in the past few decades. Since the refounding of the Japanese garden, Shofuso has served as the hub of Japanese interaction with Philadelphia, just a few feet away from the Japanese pavilion built for the same purpose over 140 years ago.