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Beloved Student Leader Kurahashi, 22, Is Mourned

Editor’s note: This article on Conner Kurahashi’s tragic passing was written by Rafu Shimpo Senior Editor Gwen Muranaka and is being reprinted with her permission.


A great cook, a natural leader, skillful with tools, a real MacGyver, adventurous, outgoing and cheerful: Conner Kurahashi made an impact on everyone who knew him. A diverse, wide community of friends, family and mentors mourned his tragic death at just 22 years old.


West High School in Torrance, where Kurahashi served as ASB student body president, hosted his memorial service on Feb. 19 at the West High School Performing Arts Center and Main Gym, and a crowd of approximately 900 people attended the service.


“These moments are never easy, are they?” said Rev. Kory Quon of Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, who officiated the service. “Usually, when we say someone that’s lived into their 90s, we could say a lot of wonderful things. And yet — 22 years — look at how many wonderful things have been said. Look at how many wonderful lives have been made better by Conner.”


Rev. Quon said Kurahashi’s homyo, or Buddhist name, is Shaku Ikkyo 釋偉教 or “Great Teaching.”


Kurahashi was an active member of the Junior Young Buddhist Association at Gardena Buddhist Church. At GBC, during high school, he served as chairman for services, helped with church recycling, led Jr. YBA seminars, and was historian in his sophomore year and treasurer as a senior.


Kurahashi also attended Medaka no Gakko, a Japanese class at the Buddhist Church of Parlier in Central California, from 2005 to 2013 — from the time he was in kindergarten to the seventh-grade. His mother, Gay (Koga) Kurahashi, would drive up from Southern California to drop Conner off with her parents, and her mother Midori Koga and sister Jan Koga would volunteer during the two-week program.


Posthumous honors


At the Feb. 19 service, surprise guest speaker state Assembly member Al Muratsuchi presented Kurahashi with a posthumous Community Recognition award for his dedication to community service and to the community.


In addition, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu requested that the U.S. flag be flown in Kurahashi’s honor at the U.S. Capitol. Rep. Lieu also read a tribute of Kurahashi’s contributions into the Congressional Record on Feb. 9, stating that “he was known for his exemplary leadership skills, devotion to civic engagement, and commitment to community service.”


J. Brett Blanton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, wrote in a letter with the U.S. flag that was sent to the Kurahashis: “We will never know all the good he would have done because his life ended so soon. We honor Conner with this flag.”


Kurahashi died of injuries suffered in a car accident on Jan. 22 as he and friends were on their way to snowboard in Big Bear.


Kurahashi was in his last year at California Polytechnic University at Pomona, majoring in urban and regional planning and looking forward to graduating this spring. His passing has been devastating for his college friends, who were looking forward to spending their last days at Cal Poly Pomona together, an experience already altered by the pandemic.


“We’re fourth-year seniors. We were not going to take any days for granted. We’re not kids anymore, we should cherish each other, cherish the house. It’s been hard,” said roommate Blake Motoyasu.

“He had an amazing heart, always doing the most for people, super nice, always willing to drive, always planning everything,” Motoyasu continued. “He was the ‘mom friend.’ He was the one planning, cleaning the house, cooking. He even picked up gardening during the pandemic.”


Motoyasu became friends with Kurahashi when they played basketball together as third-graders in club ball called SGV.


Tiger Dragons Coach Robert Chang remembered Kurahashi for his speed and his hustle, on the court and off. Chang’s son Marcus was also a roommate at Cal Poly Pomona. The Tiger Dragons, named for the fact that most of the kids were born in 2000, the Year of the Dragon, were not considered one of the elite teams, but in their last year, they won at the Hollywood Dodgers tournament in Las Vegas.


Kurahashi was not the best player, but he had an ease and a willingness to work hard, which made him popular with athletes and coaches. His friends were recently playing basketball in an adult league at the Terasaki Budokan in Little Tokyo on Sundays.


Chang said: “One time I asked him, ‘Man, do you ever get tired?’ He said, ‘No.’ Later, I found out he was running cross-country for high school. The kid never really got tired. He was constantly hustling, running and making plays.”


‘Like a brother’


His best friend in high school, Haley Jones, is a cadet playing forward on the women’s basketball team at the Air Force Academy, a Division 1 team in the Mountain West Conference. She missed the Feb. 19 memorial service because it was Senior Night for Air Force, who faced Utah State. Air Force defeated Utah State 67-56 on Senior Night.


“Coach (Chris Gobrecht) and I talked it over. She said, ‘You don’t want to miss Senior Night.’ But I’ll fly out that night. Thinking about hosting a little brunch next morning for whoever wants to be there to have a moment to pause and grieve. He was like a brother,” Jones said. There were about 20 people at the brunch, sharing stories about Kurahashi.


Jones and Kurahashi served at the high school’s student council for four years. She said Kurahashi was organized and would make sure their plans for service projects would come to fruition, including a Lip Dub video that showcased the accomplishments of West High students and involved the entire campus.


“Sue (Eriksen, ASB advisor) will tell you, we were a very good pair. What I forgot he would do, he would come behind me and figure out the X’s and O’s,” Jones said.


Eriksen said West High prepared the Main Gym for overflow seating. In all, about 475 people were in the Performing Arts Center and about 410 people were in the Main Gym. COVID-19 safety protocols, including masks, were observed. Attendees were asked to bring a vaccination card or a negative COVID test from within the past 48 hours.


The setting was fitting both for the large seating capacity and Kurahashi’s impact on the school. West High posted a tribute on their Instagram page, noting that he led the student body “fearlessly.”


“He was genuinely interested in making West High a better place,” Eriksen said. “Not just for his college apps. He had such good follow-through on his work ethic. Other kids have ideas; he also had amazing follow-through.”


Strong support for family


The support has been tremendous for Kurahashi’s family, mom Gay, father Brian and sister Bailey. Many credited Brian, who owns an auto repair shop, for his son’s mechanical skills.


Rick Kane, owner of Hawaiian Sweet Islands, employed Kurahashi when he was in middle school, and even at that time, the young man showed his curiosity and interest in fixing things, including carts used to transport the Hawaiian shave ice syrup.


“He was sharp. Everything he did he had a purpose. He loved to fix things and tinker around like his father,” Kane said.


Kurahashi’s friendliness and sense of community spirit came from his mom. Both Conner and Bailey played basketball and Gay was the team mom, organizing fundraisers, working snack bar shifts, taking pictures — anything to support the team. A wide circle of friends have stepped up to support the family. The OCO Crew led by Clay Sakurao cooked barbecue for the reception. Joyce Mebed, a friend of Gay’s, is on the OCO Board of Directors.


“We are overwhelmed with love,” Gay said.


Another gesture of support came from Little Tokyo. As they prepared for their son’s funeral, Kurahashi’s parents went to Bunkado in Little Tokyo to purchase ojuzus. Dane Ishibashi helped them and when he found out what had happened, rushed to find the couple as they ate at Hachioji ramen to return their money.


“When the pandemic hit, the community really supported Bunkado so it was important to pay that forward. It’s important to support each other, you know?” Ishibashi said.


On Feb. 19, a whole community gathered to mourn and share stories of Kurahashi’s life. He was just on the cusp of adulthood, ready to start looking for a job and a career.


Dad Brian recalled a family trip to Epcot in Florida. It was the first time he bought his son a beer and they talked about his future. Brian had discouraged his son from becoming a mechanic, a physical job that is hard on the body.


“He said, ‘You know if I can’t find a job right away, I don’t want to sit around after I graduate. I want to go to grad school.’ I asked, ‘Which one?’ He said, ‘USC, because it is a private school and they will help me find a job and I will make more money.’


“It was that moment as we were laughing and drinking, I looked at him and said, ‘I am no dad anymore. He is my buddy and that’s what I will miss the most.’”


Kurahashi is survived by his parents, Brian and Gay (Koga) Kurahashi; sister, Bailey; grandmother, Kazuko Kurahashi; uncle, Robert Kurahashi; aunts, Pattie Johnson and Jan Koga; and many other relatives.


Donations to West High School ASB in Kurahashi’s memory can be made at https://westhighasb.myschoolcentral.com.


Additional reporting on this article was provided by Rafu Shimpo Sports Editor Mikey Hirano Culross and Wheel of Dharma Editor Jon Kawamoto.


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