Rose Ochi Square Dedicated in Little Tokyo

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From left: Tommy Ochi, Councilmember Kevin de Leon and Darlene Kuba with a sign designating the intersection of First and San Pedro streets in Little Tokyo as Rose Ochi Square. (Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The intersection of First Street and Judge John Aiso Street/San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo was dedicated as Rose Ochi Square on Tuesday with several city and community leaders in attendance.

The program, held on the southwest corner of the intersection, began with a purification rite conducted by Rev. Alfred Tsuyuki, head minister of Konko Church of Los Angeles.

“We have gathered on this afternoon to dedicate and bless this historical intersection. of First Street and San Pedro in Little Tokyo as Rose Ochi Square … for her pioneering work in all areas of civic, state and federal life as a role model, not only as a woman or as an Asian American woman, but simply as an outstanding role model,” he said.

Councilmember Kevin de Leon of Council District 14, which includes Little Tokyo, said, “Back in January, I had the distinct pleasure, the honor to introduce a motion to name this very intersection in the heart of little Tokyo as Rose Ochi Square. Unfortunately … because of the COVID pandemic, we’ve been delayed in having a formal ceremony that recognizes this amazing pioneer, but maybe we were meant to celebrate this day during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“Rose Ochi, without a doubt, was … a Japanese American civil rights champion. While she passed away last year, Dec. 13, 2020, her legacy is embedded in the history of our city, as well as our state and our nation.”

Darlene Kuba, a longtime friend and colleague of Rose Ochi, initiated the Rose Ochi Square project.

During World War II, Ochi’s family was uprooted from their home in Boyle Heights and imprisoned in the Rohwer camp in Arkansas, de Leon said. “Rose was only three years old at the time. And racism wasn’t just limited to adults. She publicly recounted numerous times in her life that shaped her into the fighter that she would become. For example, like having her mouth washed out with soap by a teacher because she spoke Japanese. This was a young child and her mouth was washed out with soap just because she spoke another language …

“Ultimately she would become an instrumental player in securing a federal apology and monetary payments to camp survivors back in 1988. She also fought for and won approval of the Manzanar camp in the Owens Valley to become a national historic site back in 1992 so that no American will ever forget what happened.”

After her family resettled in East L.A., Ochi graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, UCLA and Cal State L.A., then received her law degree from Loyola Law School, de Leon said. “As an attorney at the USC Western Center of Law and Poverty, Rose served as co-counsel for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Serrano vs. Priest, which upended an inequitable finance system of our public education system in California.

“As a civil rights attorney, she dedicated her life to social justice and breaking barriers, to breaking that glass ceiling. She went on to become the first Asian American woman appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission … She served as a senior staffer to the first African American in the history of the city of L.A. to be the mayor of this city, Tom Bradley …

“Rose was also part of that movement for the historic Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which set off the pathway for legalization as well as naturalization for so many of our immigrants from all over the world, but in particular our own Western Hemisphere and our Pacific Rim — Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere.”

De Leon concluded, “Rose Ochi led a remarkable life, a life of distinction of honor and grace, of dignity and elegance. Our nation is better for her sacrifices and her contributions and the City of Angels is proud to call her a cherished daughter. We know that Rose Ochi is above us right now in heaven …

“We recognize the amazing contributions of this pioneer, this civil rights leader, this woman who was in the trenches, the sharp tip of the spear fighting for justice. That’s for all individuals, regardless of who you are, regardless of where you come from, regardless of the color of your skin, regardless of who you love, which god you pray to, and yes, regardless of your legal status. This is who this woman was.”

Councilmember Kevin de Leon, whose district includes Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, discussed Rose Ochi’s ties to both communities.

Darlene Kuba, who initiated the effort to honor Ochi, was introduced by de Leon as “another incredible, dynamic woman, a Japanese American woman, a woman of color, a woman who grew up in Boyle Heights across that bridge … a woman who is a pillar of strength in the city of L.A. and has dedicated her life to the city.”

“Rose’s entire life was dedicated to ensuring equity and justice for all,” said Kuba. “She was a true example of how one person can make a difference. Rose was a trailblazer, a champion for social justice, civil rights advocate, policy maker, and a criminal justice reformer …

“Rose served on President (Jimmy) Carter’s Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, where she pushed for immigration reform and assisted in creating a pathway to citizenship. Rose played a critical role in securing a federal apology and obtaining reparations and redress for Japanese Americans to address the injustices they suffered during World War II. She also was extremely proud to play a key role in declaring Manzanar concentration camp as a national historic site.

“Rose was the first Asian American woman to hold the following positions assistant U.S. attorney general, director of criminal justice planning for the City of Los Angeles, member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, member of the Board of Trustee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, executive director of the California Forensic Science Institute …

“Naming this location the Rose Ochi Square is amazingly fitting because this intersection is a gateway to Little Tokyo … Above everything, Rose was very proud of her heritage and she represented the Japanese American community with honor and dignity.”

De Leon also thanked former Assemblymember Warren Furutani for helping to make the tribute to Ochi a reality.

Tommy Ochi, who joked that he was “frequently introduced as Mr. Rose Ochi,” said, “After 57 years of marriage, I think I know Rose very well. She would be surprised and extremely grateful for this honor. She never sought to have her accomplishments publicized. In fact, I read an article on redress that stated no one would know of her contributions because she never talked about it. But President (Ronald) Reagan, in signing the bill on redress, he mentioned her name.”

While his wife did a lot of pro bono legal work, meaning that she wasn’t paid, Ochi said that the dedication of Rose Ochi Square was “a huge payday on Rose’s behalf. I want to thank all of you for attending the ceremony, and special thanks to Councilman de Leon for making this tribute to Rose come true.”

The speakers then unveiled the first “Rose Ochi Square” sign. Eventually there will be signs on all four corners of the intersection.

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