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A writer reflects on the life of Ryozo Kado, who beautified the unlikeliest of places

Manzanar war relocation area for Japanese Americans during world war Master stonemason Ryozo Kado co-designed this monument in the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site. | Photo by Khaleel/

It was one of those gorgeous Southern California spring days—blue skies, breeze, and temperatures in the 70s—when I decided to visit Holy Cross Cemetery. We’d been through a rough year-plus of the pandemic, and I needed some time outdoors.

No one I personally had known was buried at the Culver City cemetery. Some people visit to see the final resting places of significant Southern California figures, such as Walter O’Malley, Sharon Tate, and John Fante, or Hollywood luminaries like Bing Crosby, Bela Lugosi, and Rita Hayworth. I wanted to commune with an artist of a different sort—a kindred spirit, I thought—named Ryozo Kado.

Visits to Manzanar

During World War II, Kado was one of the more than 10,000 Japanese Americans held at Manzanar, the detention center off US Highway 395 in the Owens Valley. I became aware of him on my first visit there in the 1980s.

Manzanar had yet to be designated a national historic site, so there were few official signs or even paved parking spots. Just west of the aging internment camp, the brilliant Sierra Nevada jutted skyward, a stark backdrop for the dust whipped up by the valley’s strong winds.

What I remember most from that first visit to Manzanar were the two stone sentry buildings and the brilliant white obelisk near the humble cemetery. All, it turned out, were created by Kado, a notable stonemason who worked throughout his incarceration.

As the editor of a Japanese American newspaper, I returned to Manzanar again in the 1990s to cover the hearings in Lone Pine on whether to grant Manzanar federal historic status. Word spread that a plaque Kado had mounted at Manzanar had been vandalized by people opposing any recognition of the site’s dark past. When I arrived on the grounds, I saw that the plaque was punctured by bullet holes and marred by slash marks from an ax.

A story of faith, enshrined in stone

Kado’s confinement at Manzanar left a lasting impact on him. In 1961, he told the Saturday Evening Post that he no longer wanted to work on private wealthy estates as he had done before his internment. Instead, he would commit himself to his Catholic faith, and to creating beauty in unlikely places. Indeed, after leaving Manzanar, Kado and his wife, Hama, eventually moved back to Los Angeles, and he dedicated himself to making Catholic grottoes with lava rocks. His defining work—a massive grotto—is said to be at Holy Cross.

So as pandemic restrictions eased this spring, I made a pilgrimage to see it. The grotto was impressive, comprising a 30-foot-tall cave and a 400-foot-long rock wall. Afterward, I found the grave marker for Kado, who died in 1982, and Hama. The surface of the stone had been worn away to the point of obscuring their surname. Time and the elements had taken their toll.

Yet, Kado’s stonework lives on—at Manzanar, and around Southern California. Somehow, during what had to be a painful time at Manzanar, Kado had managed to create beautiful works. And somehow, the experience inspired him to create more beauty later in life. It was, I thought, a lesson for us all—especially after the year we’ve just endured.

Naomi Hirahara’s first historical novel, Clark and Division, which was completed during the pandemic and published this year, follows a Los Angeles family’s release from Manzanar.

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