It is with deep sadness that I report the death of Heart Mountain Nisei draft resister Mits Koshiyama, who passed away on Friday, Feb. 6, at 4 p.m. in his home in Mountain View. He was 84.
His service will be held on Saturday, Feb. 14, 1 p.m. at the Wesley United Methodist Church, 566 North 5th Street in San Jose’s Japantown.
To me, Mits had always represented the emotional core of the resistance, particularly as it pertained to their coming out in the 1990s. He generously spoke at numerous panels, especially in Northern California, telling countless numbers of community members and students about the story of the principled resistance of young Nisei men during World War II.
He was brutally honest in his words, which he didn’t mince, and was unafraid to tell the truth. His voice at times trembled with anger at the treatment of resisters, by both veterans and the Japanese American Citizens League.
He was unapologetic in his telling of the truth, and in some ways, I think his conveyance of the resisters’ story of standing for constitutional principle helped to further validate — and perhaps gave courage to — other resisters to come out to tell their own stories. He was the public face of Nisei resisters in Northern California.
I first met Mits as the resisters story — and my whirlwind involvement in it — started to unfold in about 1992. I had helped put together the Nisei resisters portion of an exhibit on the Japanese American experience, an assignment given to me by my Asian American studies professor, Wayne Maeda — the curator of the landmark exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum. After the exhibit opened, and this new world of knowledge of my own father’s wartime resistance descended upon me, I put together a reunion of the Tucsonians, a name some resisters sentenced to the federal labor camp near Tucson gave themselves.
Granada (Amache) resister Joe Norikane, now deceased, had met Mits at a Tule Lake Pilgrimage, where Mits had spoke of his resistance. We contacted Mits about joining the reunion, and he and three other Heart Mountain resisters from the Bay Area — I believe they were George Nozawa, Tom Kawahara and Dave Kawamoto — joined us at Futami Restaurant in Sacramento. It was the beginning of a lasting camaraderie between the Heart Mountain and the Tucsonian resisters, who were mostly from the Granada camp. We went over to the exhibit after the fellowship, and the story ran in the Sacramento Bee.
Over the years, I’ve kind of served as his agent of sorts. Sometimes I was asked to “find a resister” to do this or that, or a resister for the mainstream press to interview, and Mits was naturally the first one to come to mind. I’ve also helped to place him on many panels, many of which that I had organized myself — a San Francisco Japantown screening of Frank Abe’s “Conscience and the Constitution,” a panel in conjunction with Eric Muller’s book “Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II,” and a panel in conjunction with Professor Yukio Morita’s Japanese-language book on Nisei draft resistance. That latter panel, held on Nov. 3, 2007, was actually the last time I had seen Mits and his wife. He was slowing down, but still able to generously and unflinchingly share his story with others.
The first panel I had Mits sit on was actually the first of some two dozen programs I would organize as a student activist at California State University, Sacramento: a Nisei draft resisters forum featuring Mits, Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee leader Frank Emi, writer/historian Frank Chin, and my professor Wayne Maeda. Dr. Clifford Uyeda, a leading human rights activist and supporter of the resisters, attended and spoke from the audience, as did a sympathetic veteran from the Military Intelligence Service. That panel would have a lasting impact, it seems, as also in attendance was Andy Noguchi, a Sansei activist with the Florin JACL. A year later, Andy and I would work together as the Florin JACL honored the local resisters at their Time of Remembrance program, and in 2000 he would go on to spearhead a National JACL effort to finally recognize the principled stand of the resisters, seeking to atone for years of ostracism by JACL leaders. As he explained in the opening of the National JACL’s resisters reconciliation ceremony in 2002, it was that 1993 panel — where Mits shared his story of standing for constitutional rights — that first exposed Andy to the resisters’ story.
I remember one time when Mits was on a panel with former internees in Japantown, and one panelist recalled the pain and shame he endured during the war. In walking with Mits afterward, he was noticeably irritated. He said something to the extent of: “What was that guy crying about? We weren’t all victims!” Brute honesty.
Is was Mits’ honesty that was one of his greatest strengths, I believe. His ability to tell it like it is while clearly articulating his position — not in academic speak, but in laymen’s terms — made his story of resistance accessible. While a landscape gardener at San Jose’s Willow Glen High School in 1989, he was asked by students to write an article for the school newspaper, which was titled “Is the Constitution Just a Piece of Paper?” In it, he wrote: “I really want to blame my internment on racist ‘White America,’ but Japanese Americans were just as guilty. We just didn’t have the courage to fight racism and to fight for our constitutional rights.
“But not all Japanese Americans acted in this manner,” he continued. “Some acted like Americans and fought for their rights. When the government tried to draft the internees into a segregated infantry unit, some had the courage to say that they wouldn’t serve without the return of their constitutional rights. They explained that they couldn’t fight for a free world when their families were interned in a concentration camp.
He was steadfastly critical of the past JACL leaders. “Our leaders branded these resisters as troublemakers and said that they were trying to ruin the ‘proper image’ of the Japanese Americans,” he wrote.
“The reason that I am writing this article is to awaken all minorities to the importance of the Constitution,” he warned. “You must fight for your rights when they are violated. Never, NEVER surrender your rights as citizens of the United States — like we did.”
Mits Koshiyama may have been a simple gardener, but he was also a true epitome of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things under times of duress. In the tradition of Rosa Parks, Mits Koshiyama stood steadfastly against injustice. And while at the time it may have been a lonely undertaking, rest assured, Mits, that your act of heroism will never be lost upon us. You have left us with a lesson that we will always cherish, a lesson that will help us to be continually vigilant, and a legacy that we can be proud of.
— Kenji Taguma