ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. (WAFB) - There’s a spot in St. Francisville where continents and cultures converge. Behind three Japanese torii gates lies a beautiful garden that tells a uniquely American story.
“I’m Japanese-American, so I said, ‘Maybe I’ll call it a Japanese-American garden,’” Walter Imahara recalled. “My friend said, ‘There’s no such thing.’ I said, ‘Welcome to ours.’”
At 83-years-old, Imahara tends to his family garden every Friday. He makes sure every rock, every plant, and every branch is perfect.
“It’s a bonsai in the ground,” he said, pointing to one shrub he has expertly pruned.
But Imahara is shaping much more than just plants; the garden is his family’s legacy. The Imaharas have been beautifying south Louisiana for decades.
“My father started this in the 50s. We talking about 60, 70 years ago when he became a gardener in Baton Rouge. He couldn’t hardly get a job,” Imahara said.
That’s because the Imaharas were just starting over.
In December of 1941, despite being second generation Americans living in California, Imahara’s entire family was forced into a Japanese internment camp in Fresno. They were eventually transferred to another camp in Arkansas, where they spent nearly four years locked up. They were among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans confined in their own country by prejudice and fear.
“We were put into horse stables and makeshift barracks, but you gotta' remember, I was only 4-years-old,” Imahara recalled.
After their release in 1945, the Imaharas never looked back. They settled in New Orleans and eventually Baton Rouge. Imahara graduated from Istrouma High School in 1955 and eventually became an officer in the U.S. Army, wearing the same uniform that just a few years earlier kept his family in camps.
Then in 1977 on his first trip to Japan, Imahara made an incredible discovery: the Imahara family monument tucked away at a Buddhist temple in Hiroshima.
“The story goes that my great-grandfather built it for his son, who passed away in China when he was in the military in the 1800s,” Imahara recalled.
The monument survived the atomic blast, but the temple priest said it was in danger of being destroyed because no one from the Imahara family had been to see it in 50 years.
Imahara knew he had to bring it home, and finally in 2019, with special permission from the Japanese government, the monument completed its 7,000-mile journey to Hemingbough in St. Francisville.
“It started off in Hiroshima, it made its way to Los Angeles by ship, and then by ship to Houston because it’s a port in Houston. It was released at that time and by truck it was brought here,” Imahara said.
And there it will stay, facing west toward Japan. It’s now the centerpiece of a legacy garden and a proud American family.
“My wife and I, we are both Japanese-American. We look at what’s going on and we can’t believe that there’s still prejudice. It has not disappeared… in a different form, but it’s still here, and we hope they can realize that we live here in America. We’re all Americans,” Imahara said.
The Imahara Legacy Garden is open to the public. Admission is free. You can find it on the grounds of Hemingbough, located at 10101 LA-965 in St. Francisville, La.
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