Tojo Garden: In memoriam

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Photo courtesy of RIT Archive Collections

The Tojo Garden was formally dedicated in 1975. Pictured from right to left: Mr. and Mrs. Kogaro Yamada, friends of the family; sister Yenoko Tojo; cousin Masanni Tojo; and Kimiko Tokugawa, granddaughter of the Yamada family.

At this time of year, our thoughts naturally turn to gardens and the uncovering and reemergence of our lush, upstate New York landscape. The campus has many lovely areas to enjoy, but I believe that one, in particular, deserves special mention.

The significance and origin of the Japanese garden located in the courtyard adjacent to Frank E. Gannett Hall may be unknown to many on campus. The story dates back to before the new campus. In 1964, a promising, young Japanese student—Yasuji Tojo—graduated from the photography program. At RIT, Tojo was known to be a dedicated student and a member of the varsity soccer and tennis teams. Tojo was returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., that June, when he was the victim of a fatal car accident.

During the planning process for the new Henrietta campus, faculty member Hans Barschel spearheaded a project to create an international garden in Tojo’s memory. Barschel and his wife had developed a friendship with Tojo after spending several holidays together.

Although Japanese cherry trees had been planted by the Lettermen’s Club in Tojo’s memory, Barschel wanted something more. In a series of letters in the RIT Archives, we found that Barschel proposed the idea of a garden with evergreens and cherry trees to be dedicated in Tojo’s memory on the new campus. Tojo’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Usaku Tojo, responded that they wished to donate a stone lantern for the garden to honor their son. The 6-foot-tall Yasuji Tojo Memorial Lantern was hand-carved in Japan out of granite and was to serve as the focal point of the garden dedicated as a living memorial to eternal youth. Barschel worked assiduously for a number of years to bring the idea to fruition and the garden was eventually constructed next to the building housing the photography programs, as Tojo’s parents wished.

Japanese lanterns have a long history with many meanings attached to them, including the five elements (earth, water, fire, wind and sky) and an association with the sacred flame, representing Buddha. These elemental and spiritual meanings seem fitting for this garden. Black pines, paper birch and a Japanese maple tree, along with azaleas, mountain laurel, Japanese iris, vinca and other perennials were planted, in addition to the installation of a stream and small pond. Small boulders, stones and a pebble path completed the garden.

The Yasuji Tojo Memorial Garden was formally dedicated in 1975. Tojo’s sister, Yenoko Tojo, cousin Masanni Tojo and three close friends came from Japan to conduct a traditional ceremony.

In 2011, the garden received a renovation and redesign. A quiet oasis on RIT’s campus, the garden not only serves as a memorial to Tojo, but a reminder of nature’s ability to renew and refresh the spirit.