USC dedicates rock garden in hopes of easing pain of racism against Japanese-American students in 1940s

In a corner of the University of Southern California’s campus, just feet from busy Jefferson Boulevard, is an exquisite rock garden.

The design by landscape architect Calvin Abe allows for a moment of peace away from the busy campus. The garden also offers peace to the families of more than 100 students forced out of USC during World War II.  

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, sending more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. 

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Friday, USC officially dedicated the garden to the families of those Nissei or first-generation Japanese-American students. 

The moment brought tears to Lauren Sodetani’s eyes. Her grandfather, James Sasaki, attended USC’s School of Dentistry. But after the war, he earned his degree at the University of Missouri. 

Sasaki never lost his affection for USC and she, her sister, her uncle and other family members graduated USC.  But it’s she who took it upon herself to find any information about her grandfather’s time at USC. She found nothing, despite evidence in a photo of him in front of Gakusei Kai, the house where Japanese American students lived.   

USC President Carol Folt addressed the racism of that time to invited guests of the dedication, 

"The USC Nisei students were barred from returning to USC and they were denied their own transcripts which kept them from transferring credits to other universities and this is a mark of shame on an institution," Folt said.

Carolyn Sugiyama Classen sat in the audience with a framed black and white photo of her father, Francis Sueo Sugiyama.  

She said he didn’t want to talk much about his time at USC, but he never lost his bitterness and prevented his attorney daughter from trying to right the wrong that her father suffered. Friday night, a little resolution; President Folt will grant honorary degrees posthumously to the Japanese Americans forced out of the university in 1942. 

That includes, people like Henry Kondo. He left USC and joined his family in an internment camp in Gila, Arizona. When able he enlisted and joined the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team, but died in battle before he could return to the US and finish his degree. 

His great-niece Kristen Hayashi is Collections Manager of the Japanese American National Museum.  In the archives, letters that Henry wrote to his family, including one that stated his mission to prove that he was 200% American.  

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