Orange County Japanese Garden Celebrates 50th Anniversary

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Unknown project of Japanese pioneers has been reborn.

The Japanese Garden and Teahouse has been painstakingly renovated by the Orange County Civic Center Authority.

By PATTI HIRAHARA, Special to The Rafu

SANTA ANA – Over 50 years ago, the Orange County Board of Supervisors paved the way for a special project to be constructed in the area of the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana by passing a resolution on Jan. 16, 1968.

This project, to be totally funded by donations, was to be a symbol of friendship and gratitude from the Orange County Japanese American community in the form of a 75-foot by 102-foot Japanese garden and teahouse that would replace a dusty parking lot along the east wall of the new Orange County Courthouse that was to be opened in 1969.

According to recent research conducted by Chris Jepsen, a noted Orange County historian, “Plans for the garden were unveiled in June of 1969 by the Japanese American Community Services, Inc. – a nonprofit group chaired by Hitoshi Nitta with Mas Uyesugi and Paul Nagamatsu, first and second vice presidents; Richard Kasuya, treasurer; and Sumi Akiyama, secretary,” making up the executive committee.

“The plans featured a cedar pavilion or teahouse with Japanese tile, a dry stream bed, sculpted earth, and traditional plantings. It was also to feature stone lanterns and other artifacts from Japan.” Jepsen added.

The goal of the Orange County Japanese Garden Project was to raise an estimated $50,000 for the cost of creating the garden and teahouse. That was quite a sum of money in those days and so the committee sent out 2,200 letters to Orange County’s Japanese American families in June of 1969 to raise the funds.

The fundraising letter sent by Uyesugi, fundraising chairman, appealed to the community by stating the following points: “We ask you to please search your generous hearts and consider … the many opportunities accorded us by our Orange County communities. They have provided us a chance to earn a good living, to live in comfortable homes, and enjoy the freedoms.”

The letter continued, “We have set our goal high so we will be able to build not just an average garden, but one to which we can point to with pride. A unique garden which will be a fitting tribute to our Issei pioneers, Niseis, Sanseis, and all future generations.”

Takashi Kushi and Barbara Sagami tend to a 130-year-old pine tree that was planted 50 years ago at the garden and still thrives today.

The plans for the Japanese garden gift were then offered to the Orange County Board of Supervisors on July 1, 1969. It had been 24 years since the closing of the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II and the continued resettlement of Japanese Americans to Orange County.

Jepsen was able to unearth documents that were thought to have been lost and it gives us a glimpse of how these Japanese American pioneers felt about this garden.

Chairman Nitta said, “The Japanese Garden Project is truly a challenge to all Japanese Americans here in this community. This is to be installed in the Orange County Civic Center. Those of us who have become involved in the project have been inspired by the challenge. In the days and weeks ahead, we hope that through a broad cooperative spirit and effort within the entire community, we will be able to put this garden project over the top.”

Gene Uematsu, who was a UC Irvine campus planner and architect, said, “The Japanese garden is not just a garden, but a tribute and positive statement that the Japanese American people were and are a vital part of this great and growing community. Thus, this garden will be a symbol of the dedication and the patriotism of the Japanese community to its fellow neighbors; also, that by working together, we can jointly build in this great society a better cultural environment for all people. Therefore, I have endorsed this project and will support it as a personal privilege as well as an honor shared by all.”

An original sketch of the grounds in Santa Ana.

Although written 50 years ago, these statements hold so true today to ensure that the Japanese American legacy is preserved.

The garden groundbreaking was held on May 27, 1970 and a plaque commemorates this date at the garden.

The plaque reads, “Dedicated and presented for the pleasure of all people in Orange County by the Japanese American community. A grateful Arigato in honor of our pioneer fathers and for the blessings of freedom.”

In seeing this plaque at the garden last year, I thought it was the dedication date rather than the groundbreaking, so I started to ask various people in Orange County if they were aware of the creation of this garden and its significance to our community. Unfortunately, to my surprise, there were very few who were aware of its existence, so I started to dig further to see if I could find out any information.

The teahouse has been remodeled. This was the place where many county employees enjoyed eating their lunch and having a place to talk with friends.

In my family’s files, I found a donation letter receipt, a sketch of the proposed garden, a map, and an August 1970 copy of the Santana Wind newspaper, which was published by the Orange County JACL, who promoted “Better Americans in a Greater America.” In this issue, it named a partial list of donors who had donated $38,300 towards its $50,000 goal. Residents from the City of Anaheim led the list with 101 donors.

In combining the names from the Santana Wind and the Japanese American Community Services, Inc.’s own promotional solicitation pamphlet, the partial list of donors totaled over 641 organizations and families throughout Orange County and beyond to that point.

Each Orange County family was also to be visited by a member of the volunteer canvassing team to explain the project and why it was such an important endeavor.

A cherry tree that was planted last summer blooms in the unseasonably warm October air.

The Japanese garden and teahouse were dedicated on Nov. 15, 1970. The committee said, “You’ll find nothing like this in Japan because this is an expression of Orange County’s Japanese American community.”

Chairman Nitta said, “The Japanese in Orange County wanted to present this gift to the county as a permanent landmark for all to view. It would also serve as a remembrance for the love of beauty emphasized by our parents and to be carried on by their succeeding generations.”

OC Japanese Garden dedication ceremony on Nov. 15, 1970. (Courtesy of OC Archives)

Many dignitaries and pioneers of the Orange County Japanese community were present at the ceremony, in 1970, but the majority have now passed away.

According to Jepsen, “The Los Angeles Times editorialized, ‘Today, when so many think only of what they can get from their government, it is heartening to see one segment of our society stop to count their blessings and then dedicate themselves to a task of unselfish giving. To our Japanese American neighbors we say, Arigato -— Thank you.’”

It was the committee’s hope that this Japanese Garden would be utilized by the many people who worked in the Civic Center area.

People have said that through the years, county workers enjoyed eating their lunch under the roofed Japanese teahouse and viewing the Japanese landscaped surroundings, but as of three years ago, the garden has been fenced off to the public due to the number of homeless that would frequent the area.

Once Orange County was made aware of the Japanese Garden’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2020, Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Supervisor Andrew Do’s office began preparations to commemorate this milestone anniversary with the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council since the original Japanese American Community Services, Inc. organization was no longer in existence.

“The Japanese Garden in Orange County’s Civic Center is a symbol of unity and patriotism on behalf of the Japanese community,” said Supervisor Do. “It is an honor and privilege to be part of the Japanese Garden’s 50th anniversary this year. The garden is an expression of the resilience and vibrancy of the Orange County Japanese American community.

“This year, we also commemorate 75 years since the closing of the Japanese American incarceration camps. As we remember those who were stripped of their civil liberties, let’s never forget the tenacity and resilience of the Japanese American community. In solidarity, Orange County stands with you.”

Groundbreaking dedication plaque dated May 27, 1970: “Dedicated and presented for the pleasure of all people in Orange County by the Japanese American community. A grateful arigato in honor of our pioneer fathers and for the blessings of freedom.”

In addition, Ron Ono, administrative services manager of the Santa Ana Parks, Recreation, and Community Services Agency and landscape architect for the city, worked with the Orange County Civic Center Authority (City of Santa Ana and County of Orange) to receive funding for the Japanese Garden project renovation on Dec. 11, 2019 and have the work implemented in January of this year.

At the suggestion of Ono, the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council provided a new Japanese stone lantern and a time capsule to preserve significant documents about Orange County’s Japanese American community from the creation of this garden to the commemoration of this 50th anniversary.

To be able to have this garden be a symbol of what the Orange County Japanese pioneers had envisioned 50 years ago is an amazing tribute to this community with a $50,000 gift that keeps on giving.

It is hoped that for the future generations this garden will be a site of inspiration and a remembrance of the beauty of the Japanese culture here in Orange County and it will be a historic landmark that will be talked about for years to come.

Photos by PATTI HIRAHARA (except where noted)

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