Japanese American family of USC alumni view a rock garden on campus
Niki Kawakami – "Us being here today, it’s a very reflective time. I used to share a lot of stories and I think that’s something that should be emphasized more, that connecting with your history, learning from the lessons and seeing how you can be better." (Photo/Damon Casarez)

On a quiet Friday morning near the north end of Trousdale Parkway on USC’s University Park Campus, Kent Ochiai thinks about his father. He pauses and soaks in the surroundings of the Nisei rock garden and admires the plant life—the pine trees, bamboo and Japanese clivia.

“It’s a kind of Japanese thing where you make the most out of the surrounding landscape,” he notes as he points to the foliage. “You can do artistry with the landscape; you don’t necessarily have to make a big tower or anything like that.”

Soon after, Ochiai DDS ’87 is joined by his sister Ruth Kawakami DDS ’90 and her daughter Niki DDS ’22. “It’s very peaceful [here] and it makes you very reflective,” Niki Kawakami says.

As two generations of Trojans walk around the garden, they talk about their family patriarch, Tadashi “Tad” Ochiai.

The elder Ochiai was a member of the Nisei generation—children of Japanese American immigrants—who were forced into detention centers right after the United States entered World War II. He was a student at USC when he was forced into a camp in southwest Arizona.

After being released from incarceration, a few students returned to the university, but some of those who completed their degrees elsewhere—like Ochiai—were denied their transcripts.

Ochiai, who completed four years of dental school at St. Louis University in Missouri, set up a successful practice in Orange County. He also remained an ardent Trojan, sending both his children to USC.

The garden is off the beaten path, which is fitting when you think about it because our parents were of a generation that was very understated. I like the fact that in order to really appreciate it, you have to look for it.

Ruth Kawakami

In 2012, 70 years after being sent to a camp in the desert, Ochiai was part of the first group of Nisei students to receive honorary degrees from USC. He passed away two months before the ceremony, and at the time, university policy did not allow degrees to be issued posthumously. Last year, USC President Carol L. Folt made an exception to that policy for 40 Nisei students, and almost 80 years later, Ochiai received his degree, after both of his children and the same year as his granddaughter.

Shortly afterward, Folt approved the construction of the rock garden to honor Nisei students who faced discrimination during World War II. Designed by renowned landscape architect and Nisei descendant Calvin Abe, the garden officially opened on April 1 with a dedication ceremony.

Tad Ochiai’s descendants say that the garden suits him and the other Nisei. “The garden is off the beaten path, which is fitting when you think about it because our parents were of a generation that was very understated,” says Ruth Kawakami, adding, “I like the fact that in order to really appreciate it, you have to look for it.”

Placed near the historic Alumni Memorial Pylon erected in the early 1930s, the rock garden encourages visitors to turn their backs on the traffic of downtown Los Angeles and look toward the University Park Campus. Abe says this alignment is symbolic of a return.

Alumni LifeUniversityJapanese AmericanNisei