The Japanese Pagoda | Weird Memorials of Washington | Volume 2
Welcome to Weird Memorials of Washington, a monthly blog post that examines the Capital's odd and little-known monuments, memorials, and landmarks. This month, we'll discuss the Japanese Pagoda, which is part of our Cherry Blossom Tidal Basin Walking Tour. Unfortunately, the cherry blossoms are best seen virtually this year, but we hope you’ll join us for the bloom in person in 2021!
Since we’re in the thick of Cherry Blossom season, there’s no better weird monument to feature than one that shares its origin with the cherry trees: the Japanese Pagoda. Like the trees, this landmark along the Tidal Basin was a gift from Japan. It was given to the United States in 1957 by Mayor Ryoza Hiranuma of Yokohama, Japan to commemorate over 100 years of friendship between Japan and the United States.
With its picturesque location along the Tidal Basin, nestled among the cherry trees, the Pagoda’s setting, unique design, and backstory make this a weird memorial well worth visiting.
An Elegant Jigsaw Puzzle
The Japanese Pagoda started out much like a piece of Ikea furniture: assembly was required. When the structure arrived from Japan in 1958, it was packed in five separate shipping crates, without instructions on how to put it together. Researchers at the Library of Congress had to be consulted to figure out the gift’s intended shape.
Washington’s Japanese Pagoda dates back to the 17th century, and is made up of nine square slabs of granite. The slabs are graduated—or laid in order of their size. At the top is a small cylinder. Its square base features carved images of Buddha sitting on a lotus flower. Despite its elegant figure, the pagoda weighs about 3,800 pounds—as much as a car!
What Is a Pagoda?
The pagoda is an ancient, multi-tiered structure commonly found in many parts of Asia. Pagodas trace their origins to Indian stupas, which had rounded tiers, centered around a single pillar. They were used primarily as burial markers, but also to house religious relics or as places of meditation.
Pagodas are common holy places for Buddhists and Taoists—religions that span many nations across Asia. As a result, their designs are very diverse. While pagodas are common in nations like Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, the architectural style of Japanese and Chinese pagodas is perhaps most recognizable.
Japanese and Chinese pagodas most often have multiple tiers—usually an odd number—with a central column or spire on top. While this central column is meant to be a channel for the divine, it can also act as a literal lightning rod, making pagodas with metal spires vulnerable to lightning strikes.
Japanese pagodas often consist of five levels to represent the elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and space. They usually contain religious iconography, like images of Buddha.
A Hard-Won Friendship
Washington’s pagoda was given in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of a historic treaty between the U.S. and Japan.
Japan had been largely closed to trade and diplomatic relations with foreigners since 1639. Seeking to establish trade and safe harbors on America’s trade routes to China, in 1853 the U.S. sent an envoy led by Commodore Matthew Perry to court Japan into a trade agreement. In March 1854, the Japanese accepted the agreement and the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed. Yokohama, a port city in Kanagawa province, was one of the first ports open to Western trade a few years after. A century later, the mayor of Yokohama recognized this with the gift of the Japanese Pagoda.
While the Perry expedition marked a historic moment in U.S.-Japanese relations, the following century was obviously not one of peace. From 1941-1945, the U.S. and Japan were embroiled in World War II. The gift of the pagoda, just 13 years after the end of World War II, marks a successful transition from enemies to allies—a hard-won friendship well worth memorializing.
We hope you'll join us next year for a Cherry Blossom Tidal Basin Walking tour to visit the trees and hear even more about this centuries-old monument to Japanese culture and the continuing friendship between Japan and the United States.
If you’d like to learn about more weird monuments in Washington DC, check out our first post on the Temperance Fountain. You can also watch this video (done in collaboration with Trip Hacks DC) discussing some of DC’s weirdest and most bizarre sights.