ALTADENA — Reiko Sakai flies home today, ending a journey that brought her more than 5,000 miles to pray at the grave of a woman she never met.
In fact, most of the 28 alumnae from the Hokusei (North Star) Schools attending a memorial service Tuesday at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena never knew Sarah Clark Smith.
But by founding a small Christian school for girls on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1887, Smith left a legacy of strong religious convictions and commitment to education for women that was to profoundly affect the lives of thousands more students unknown to her.
"Even though I never saw her, her spirit is still living in the school," Sakai, a Hokusei alumna and now a history professor at Hokusei College, said through an interpreter. "I understand her strong faith."
The visit to the United States by the former Hokusei students marks the beginning of the 100th anniversary of Smith's journey to Japan, which will be commemorated with a celebration in Sapporo next year.
Their 10-day trip also took the almunae to Minneapolis, Chicago and New York--cities where Smith resided before her pioneering mission. She lived in Pasadena from 1928 until her death nearly 20 years later.
"As you saw, their feelings were so deep that many of them were crying," said Jun Arima, president of Hokusei College, shortly after singing the hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" in Japanese at the graveside service. "This is all very overwhelming."
Smith, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, arrived in Japan at the age of 36, only three decades after Commodore Matthew Perry had led a squadron of warships to Japan, precipitating the United States' first commercial treaty with the country.
Unmarried and alone, Smith founded a small, private school where she would continue to teach English and the principles of Christianity to young Japanese girls for the next 41 years. The Hokkaido campus, which has since expanded to include six schools and a co-educational college, has an enrollment of 5,000.
Busen Kondo, at 92 one of the school's oldest living graduates and a resident of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, joined the alumnae group to attend the memorial service.
The diminutive Kondo, who makes regular visits to the grave, said she entered the Hokusei school in 1904 while Smith was still teaching in Japan.
"She was rather strict," Kondo said. "But she liked me because I was so small and cute."