The Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council was honored with a proclamation from the Orange County Board of Supervisors. From left: Supervisor Lisa Sato Bartlett, 5th District; Vice Chairman Supervisor Andrew Do, 1st District; Jesse James, OCNCC treasurer and OC Japanese Garden project coordinator; Supervisor Donald Wagner, 3rd District; and Supervisor Doug Chaffee, 4th District. (7 Dreams Productions)

Special to The Rafu

SANTA ANA – We’ve all heard of the old adage “Where’s there a will, there’s a way,” but this spirit was a driving force for making a new dream come true for Orange County’s Japanese American community, earlier this month, to be able to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Orange County’s Japanese Garden and Teahouse on Nov. 10.

With the strict guidelines of COVID-19, the normal avenues for holding any event were challenging. A plan had been put in place, in November 2019, to invite the Orange County Japanese American community to come and celebrate this milestone rededication with members of the original coordinating organization, the Japanese American Community Services, Inc., their descendants, and the people that made this garden possible so many years ago.

This commemoration would highlight a gift that was given by Orange County’s Japanese American community to the County of Orange, and was planned to be held, 50 years later, on its dedication anniversary date of May 27, 2020.

The rededication was being coordinated by Supervisor Andrew Do, vice chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, where his office policy advisor Ofelia Velarde-Garcia was the garden project coordinator with the support of Chief of Staff Chris Wangsaporn. The garden was under the jurisdiction of the county’s 1st District, which Do represents, since it was located in the Orange County Civic Center in Santa Ana.

With only a few clues that marked this half-century milestone with documentation held by the Frank C. Hirahara family and a bronze plaque that still remained, the possibility of having a 50th anniversary commemoration became grim once the pandemic hit Orange County hard this spring. The garden’s renovation appropriation had just been secured in December 2019, and the possibility of being finished by May was not definite.

The 50th anniversary commemoration and rededication plaque was unveiled at the ceremony. (Patti Hirahara)

The original fundraising organization, the Japanese American Community Services, Inc. (JACS), which was chaired by Hitoshi Nitta, was no longer in existence and so the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council (OCNCC) became the perfect organization to partner with for this endeavor.

To pay tribute to the over 643 families and organizations who had donated to make this special living treasure a reality, the OCNCC donated a Japanese stone lantern and a time capsule that would hold historic information about Orange County’s Japanese American community for future generations.

Orange County Japanese American history preservationist Patti Hirahara. (Michael Komai/Rafu Shimpo)

OCNCC Treasurer Jesse James said of the group’s participation, “Due to Patti Hirahara’s relentlessly dedicated efforts and her invitation for the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council to help her, we have become a proud partner. It is incredible that the original Japanese Americans, 50 years ago, had the foresight of the importance of sharing our Japanese culture to the rest of Orange County.”

Hirahara had been the one who found the garden’s donation receipt and accompanying documents in her family’s records, while preparing for the City of Anaheim’s Japanese pioneer exhibit in 2019. She approached the county last year in October in regard to the garden’s upcoming 50th anniversary.

The county had hoped to find more detailed historical documentation, which would tell them how the project started and what had happened over these many years. An extensive search was done, early on, but nothing ever materialized.

So, an inquiry was made to Chris Jepsen, assistant archivist and Orange County historian, of the Orange County Archives, which is part of the O.C. Clerk Recorder’s Office, about the Orange County Japanese Garden.

Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Akira Muto delivers good wishes. (Patti Hirahara)

After looking through online newspaper resources, he was able to provide initial information that the garden’s groundbreaking was held on May 27, 1970 and the actual garden dedication was held on Nov. 15, 1970. This gave the planning team more time to see if a small commemoration event could still be possible in November, due to the restrictions of the pandemic.

Jepsen continued to search and unearthed a file compiled by Christine Galanis, from the old County Public Information Office, which had been transferred to the Orange County Archives. The file had the original Japanese garden documents and copies, news clippings and the initial Board of Supervisors resolution that put this project into motion in 1968. If this had not been found, the historical background on the project would have been limited and no one would have known about the 80-year-old tree that had been planted.

Knowing that the 50th anniversary had not passed, a decision was made to assemble a group of only 25 people for an outdoor ceremony, with social distancing, temperature checks, and masks being required of all participants so that the 50th anniversary would not be a forgotten memory.

In selecting attendees, it was important to find representatives whose families and organizations were part of this special endeavor 50 years ago as well as those in Orange County who have succeeded to become leaders in their respective fields.

A legacy from a half-century ago to the present: Representatives from the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council meet with descendants and a board member from the original Japanese American Community Services Inc., which raised the $50,000 to create the Orange County Japanese Garden in 1970. OCNCC Treasurer Jesse James; OCNCC rep Kenneth Inouye; JACS charter board member Keiko Sadakane; descendants of JACS Chairman Hitoshi Nitta, daughter-in-law Diane Nitta and son Hitoshi A. Nitta; and descendant of JACS board member Tad Munemitsu, daughter Janice Munemitsu.
Ron Ono, City of Santa Ana (Pati Hirahara)

The rededication of the Orange County Japanese Garden was hosted by the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council.

Honored guests included Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Akira Muto and his wife Misako; Supervisor Andrew Do, representing the 1st District; Supervisor Lisa Sato Bartlett, representing the 5th District; Supervisor Doug Chaffee, representing the 4th District; Supervisor Don Wagner, representing the 3rd District; Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Juan Villegas; Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura; David Yamasaki, court executive officer, Superior Court of California, County of Orange; SELANOCO (Southeast L.A.-North Orange County) JACL President Ryan Yoshikawa; Don Miyada and his wife Setsuko, representing Kazuo Masuda VFW Memorial Post 3670; Orange County Gardeners Association Vice President Takashi Kushi; and Michael Komai, publisher and president of The Rafu Shimpo.

Representing JACS, the original organization that spearheaded the fundraising efforts for the garden 50 years ago, were Hitoshi A. Nitta and his wife Diane, whose father Hitoshi was JACS chairman and whose Issei grandfather Shosuke was a garden advisor; JACS charter board member Keiko Sadakane; and Janice Munemitsu, whose father Tad was a JACS board member and canvassing chairman and whose Issei grandfather Seima Munemitsu was a garden advisor.

Chris Jepsen, Orange County Archives

The OCNCC was represented by Jesse James, treasurer and Orange County Japanese Garden project coordinator; and Kenneth Inouye, who was the 2019 OCNCC Nisei Week Pioneer Spirit honoree and a OCNCC representative.

The short program began with Supervisor Bartlett, who was master of ceremonies, leading the Pledge of Allegiance with the assistance of Orange County’s own 95-year-old Don Miyada, who is one of the last surviving members of the World War II 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in the county.

Supervisor Do was then asked to give welcome remarks on behalf of the 1st District:

“The Japanese Garden and Teahouse is an expression of the resilience and vibrancy of the Orange County Japanese American community. When I was made aware of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese Garden, I began working with the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council and Patti Hirahara to facilitate this momentous occasion in a COVID-safe setting.

Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Juan Villegas (Patti Hirahara)

“The history of the garden has been a well-kept secret for 50 years. But with this rededication, especially with the upcoming completion of the County Civic Center and our new soon-to-be-completed County Administration North building, the Japanese Garden and Teahouse will continue to thrive and be used by our residents for the next 100 years.”

Supervisor Bartlett said, “It is my honor and privilege to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Japanese Garden and Tea House. This is a very special place and a wonderful tribute to the Japanese American community for their many contributions to Orange County over the years.”

Consul General Muto stated that he and his wife Misako were honored to join in this special occasion of the 50th anniversary and rededication of the Orange County Japanese Garden and Teahouse.

“I extend my gratitude for all the contributions made by the Japanese American pioneers who established the foundation of the dynamic community we have been blessed with today,” he said. “The garden is an excellent example of where grassroots exchanges have brought greater understanding with this special offering to the local government from the visionary Japanese American leaders in 1970.

“I cannot emphasize more the role the Japanese American pioneers as well as grassroot exchanges have played for the U.S.-Japan alliance, the most important relationship in the Asia-Pacific Region.”

The OCNCC received a Certificate of Recognition from Mayor Pro Villegas and the Board of Supervisors also presented a proclamation to the OCNCC for their support on the project.

To conclude the rededication ceremony, a special plaque unveiling was made by the Board of Supervisors and the OCNCC to honor those that made the 50th anniversary of the Orange County Japanese Garden and Teahouse possible.

The wording on the plaque states: “50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Orange County Japanese Garden and Teahouse, November 1970 to November 2020. Vice Chairman Andrew Do, First District; OC Board of Supervisors; Mayor Pro Tem Juan Villegas, Ward 5, Santa Ana City Council.

“With much appreciation to County of Orange and the City of Santa Ana, Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council and especially the contributions of the Japanese American community of Orange County and its pioneers for making this dream a reality 50 years ago.

“The time capsule and Japanese Stone Lantern courtesy of the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council – Plaque placed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.”

Takashi Kushi of the Orange County Gardeners Association with the Japanese Garden’s 130-year-old pine tree. (Patti Hirahara)

Three individuals were honored on the plaque for their significant work on this year-long project: Ron Ono, administrative services manager/landscape architect, City of Santa Ana; Chris Jepsen, Orange County Archives assistant archivist and president of the Orange County Historical Society; and Patti Hirahara, administrator of the Hirahara Family Collections and Orange County Japanese American history preservationist.

Ono was responsible for securing funding for the renovation of the 50-year-old garden. Asked what he felt needed to be added, from the original landscape design, for this 50th– anniversary renovation, he said, “In renovating the Japanese Garden and Teahouse, I wanted to make sure the original intent and design of the teahouse and Japanese garden was preserved since some of the original materials were from Japan. With the current building codes and ADA accessibility, we tried to preserve the simplicity of the structure.

“We also wanted to bring a form of joy and happiness into the garden by introducing a group of flowering cherry trees into the landscape design since it is a joyful symbol of Japan.”

Orange County Superior Court Executive Officer David Yamasaki and Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura. (7 Dreams Productions)

Jepsen, who helped find the documentation that brought the garden’s history to light, said about the honor, “As part of the Orange County Archives team, which helps preserve and uncover history daily, I don’t expect special acknowledgement. But it’s a great honor to be recognized for my role in this special project.”

The final person named on the plaque is Hirahara, who worked to find descendants of the original committee as well as those that worked on the project and compiled a partial list of donors for the garden project. She worked with Supervisor Do’s office to organize the 50th anniversary rededication.

When asked about this recognition, she said, “I am honored to be recognized by the OC Board of Supervisors and the City of Santa Ana for this 50th anniversary commemoration. This was the last gift my husband gave me so I could work on this, while he was ill, and it is a tribute to all the Orange County Japanese American pioneers, I grew up with. They were my mentors and I hope I did them proud.”

After the ceremony was over, Keiko Sadakane, the only remaining charter board member attending, was asked how she felt about being a part of the reddedication?

“I did not know what to expect when I was invited to attend but once I got here, it brought back memories of times past. Although some of the plants had gotten bigger, the overall Japanese garden and teahouse were beautiful. It looked like time stood still and I was back in 1970,” she said.

“It touched my heart to see all the interest the County of Orange and City of Santa Ana had in wanting to make this 50th anniversary so special. All of us that worked on the project from 1968, wanted this garden to make a difference in sharing our cultural heritage, in a place we all called home and gave us a second chance to start our lives again.”

Sadakane added, “I was so impressed on how they organized this rededication ceremony; it was perfect. I look forward to when the whole Orange County Japanese American community can visit this special place.”

Orange County and Santa Ana officials with honored guests at the ceremony. (7 Dreams Productions)

Hitoshi Alan Nitta, whose father Hitoshi was the JACS chairman, came from the Fresno area for the ceremony. “This celebration of the Japanese Garden was especially meaningful for my family and the Orange County Japanese American community. I am very proud of the leadership role my father had in the creation of this beautiful garden,” he said.

“As we recognize the foresight and planning that produced this living legacy 50 years ago, this promises to provide a tranquil place of Japanese beauty for all to enjoy for years to come. Seeing old friends and acquaintances was wonderful and we look forward to the next event when the time capsule will be placed,” Nitta concluded.

It is unfortunate that the one element that was missing was the Orange County Japanese American community’s ability to come and share in this 50th anniversary. So, although delayed, the time capsule portion of the ceremony will be postponed to a time when the whole community can be present, COVID-19 guidelines permitting.

With many wanting to come and visit this 50-year-old treasure, the garden is not accessible to the public at this time but it is hoped that it will be open soon. This unknown garden is a symbol of Orange County’s Japanese American community and with this half-century milestone, it is hoped that future generations will come and appreciate its beginnings.

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