Dedication of USC Nisei Rock Garden

April 1, 2022

Good morning, everyone.

Welcome to this special and historic ceremony of dedication for our new USC Nisei Rock Garden.

This evocative, contemplative type of dry garden is known as kare san sui in Japan, and dates to the 11th century.

Our kare san sui, designed for meditation and contemplation, expresses the resilience, perseverance and hope of USC’s Nisei students who faced tremendous suffering and injustice.

Eighty years ago, in California and across the west, thousands of Japanese Americans – including more than 100 Nisei Trojans – were taken abruptly from their homes and livelihoods and forcibly relocated, based solely on their heritage. Some were sent to Manzanar, 200 miles to our north, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada – a place so desolate, that one scholar called it the definition of “godforsaken.”

As we sit here today on the beautiful USC campus, it’s hard to imagine such a place – or the profound injustice it was for people who were forced to live there.

We must never forget what happened in these internment camps – and indeed across our society at that time – because memory is one of the primary deterrents to injustice, repeated.

For Nisei families, the betrayal was profound. Take for example the family of Henry Kondo, a USC pharmacy student who was forcibly removed to the Tulare Detention Facility in 1942.

In an act of loyalty and bravery, he volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. His regiment was the most decorated unit in U.S. military history and comprised almost entirely second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry.

Henry fought heroically but was killed in action during the Battle of Bruyères in 1944.

His letters from war to his family live on. Henry’s great niece, Kristen Hayashi, read to me from those letters when I recently toured the Japanese American National Museum, where she serves as Director of Collections Management.

I was deeply moved to hear Kristen read the words of her great uncle talking about missing home and his friends at USC. We are honored to have Kristen and other members of the Henry Kondo family with us today.

Even after the war was over and the camps were closed, the USC Nisei students were barred from returning to USC and denied their own transcripts to transfer to other universities – a mark of shame on an institution that decades earlier had been a pioneer in admitting Asian and other international students, and whose APAA students and alumni were thriving members of the Trojan Family and of their own communities.

The USC president who denied the Nisei students their rights was Rufus Von KleinSmid – and this very next weekend the USC Board of Trustees and I will rededicate a building formerly named for him, to a remarkable alumnus, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow. He is known for many exceptional qualities – one of which, was bringing together people from all walks of life and celebrating all cultures.

And it is in that same spirit that renowned landscape architect Calvin Abe – whose own parents were incarcerated during the war – designed this spiritual, meditative garden with passion and purpose.

Calvin developed the USC Nisei Rock Garden “as a place to relax and reconsider what happened in the past, an expression of perseverance and hope.”

Through the construction process, Calvin said this project became a unique and spiritual journey for him. He tells how every obstacle and challenge he faced, ended up supporting the garden’s divine inspiration – as if the garden built itself.

When you walk among the paving stones, plantings and boulders, you will sense the turmoil and challenges, as well as the resilience and triumph of our Nisei students.

We also hope the peace and serenity of the garden will provide you and generations to come, with an opportunity to reflect on your own personal journeys.

And with your back facing downtown Los Angeles, we hope you’ll notice the placement of the family of boulders in the center of the dry slate stream. They are carefully aligned with the historic Alumni Memorial Pylon that orients all visitors toward our campus, signaling a return to learning, advancement and fulfilment.

The rock garden also serves as a symbol of environmental sustainability and hope for a better future for our planet and for all humanity.

Providing justice to our Nisei Trojan Family members and friends was too slow in coming.

But a class project by three 2021 graduates of the USC Gould Law School, Jenna Edzant, Mirelle Raza and Sara Zollner – called “Forgotten Trojans: USC Nisei Story” – pointed out the historical issues of discrimination and racism.

Their research led them to Jon Kaji, a former president of the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association, who persevered for 15 years, to get the university to recognize all Nisei students whose USC lives and careers were disrupted by World War II.

I first learned about this injustice from Jon, just a few months ago. I am so fortunate to have been in the position to make an exception to a university policy against awarding posthumous degrees. Now, more than 100 USC Nisei students who have since passed away, will receive the formal recognition they richly deserved. Fittingly, this evening at the 40th Annual Asian Pacific Alumni Association gala dinner in Pasadena, I will have the high honor of conferring these degrees in the presence of family members who will accept them on their loved ones’ behalf.

Then next month, at our 2022 Commencement, I plan to salute all our Nisei degree recipients by welcoming on stage the remarkable Ochiai family – all graduates of the Ostrow School of Dentistry – they will accept the diploma of their late father and grandfather, Dr. Tadashi Ochiai, a USC dentistry student in 1942 who was not permitted to complete his degree at USC.

The perseverance of the Ochiai family and our Nisei students is exquisitely represented by a famous Japanese proverb inscribed in the garden – 石の上にも三年 – “On a stone for three years.” This proverb teaches that even when we experience hard times, through endurance and patience, we will overcome.

Many dedicated and visionary people have been driving the USC Nisei Initiative, including this inspiring Rock Garden, and it would take all morning for me to go through their names.

Please know, we thank you, and you are part of this garden forever.  

Now, I would like to welcome Jon Kaji, who is largely responsible for our being here today. Jon is a dedicated Trojan and champion for the Japanese American community, just as was his father Bruce Kaji. Bruce was a decorated World War II veteran who founded the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

I was deeply moved when I toured the museum in February with Jon to remember the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. It was Jon’s promise to his father Bruce, that gave him the tenacity over 15 years to push the university to award posthumous degrees to the Nisei student families. Jon, it’s a great pleasure to invite you to share your story.

[Jon Kaji delivers remarks.]

Thank you, Jon.

Now, I would like to welcome our final speaker, Mr. Bob Fujioka. Bob’s father – John Fujioka – was in his first year of dental school at USC when he was forced to leave and sent to a detention center at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, just a few miles from here. The horse stables were converted into a camp to hold 17,000 people.

After the war, John finished his dental studies in 1946 at St. Louis University School of Dentistry, and went on to run a successful practice. There is a Japanese expression kishi kaisei, which means “wake from death and return to life.” John’s experience – like so many of his fellow Nisei – exemplified this journey from desperation to triumph, against enormous odds. Thank you for being here, Bob, and we look forward to hearing from you about your remarkable father.