Category Archives: Obituaries

My eulogy for Mits Koshiyama

I regret I cannot be there for Mits Koshiyama’s memorial service. Here is the family memorial notice in the San Jose Mercury-News.

I want to thank my brother Steve for delivering this message today on my behalf at Wesley United Methodist Church:

IN MEMORY OF MITS: Were it not for the work I am doing today to honor Mits and the other Heart Mountain resisters, I would be with you to remember Mits and all the things he stood for.

Mits was the heart and soul of the resistance to our unjust incarceration. He was just a boy when he was called upon to take a stand as a man. He was willing to go to court and risk years in prison to fight for his rights, but he was still able to see the humor when their attorney suggested the 63 boys all cut their hair short so they would all look alike and not be identified in court … or when the prosecutor rocked back and forth in his chair and flipped over backwards. It’s no coincidence that in the iconic photo of the resisters in court, Mits is front and center. He said, “Being young guys, we all sat in the front row, to see what all the action was, y’know?”

Today I am listening to Mits’ words as I edit his stories into extra features for the film to which he contributed, and as I hear his voice, it’s like he’s here in the room with me, remembering the visits from grocer Kozie Sakai or complaining about the JACL putting good publicity over good law. He was unlike any Nisei I have ever known, and he is going to be missed. But we were lucky to have known him, and we will all keep his spirit alive for generations to come, so that all Americans can know and understand his particular brand of principle and courage.

Kenji Taguma’s remembrance for Mits Koshiyama

Kenji Taguma of the Nichi Bei Times captures what was special about Mits Koshiyama:

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

In memoriam: Mits Koshiyama

Very sad news. Just picked up a phone message from Mits Koshiyama’s wife, saying that Mits passed away yesterday. Will pass along more details after I talk to her. What’s saddening for me at this moment is that I’ve been living with Mits’ voice and his joy for life in my head for the past several months while editing his outtakes from the film for the bonus features for the forthcoming DVD. I’m grateful we were able to capture and preserve his stories of being a young kid going to trial and getting short haircuts on the advice of their attorney to confuse the court. More later.

As always Kenji Taguma of the Nichi Bei Times is the first with the details. Mits passed at 4:00 p.m. on Friday. He’d been in and out of the hospital. Memorial service is Saturday, Feb. 14, 1:00 p.m., at the Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose’s Japantown.

To learn more about Mits, read his biography. In his memory tonight I’m posting the column he wrote in 1989 for Ram Pages, the student newspaper at Willow Glen High School where he once worked as a landscape gardener, the article that got him speaking out and telling his story in public after decades of no one wanting to hear about Nisei resistance in WW2. Here is “Is the Constitution Just a Piece of Paper?” – Part one and part two with overlap. Put the two parts together to form one long column.

In memoriam: George Nozawa

George Nozawa (right)Sad news from Mountain View, California tonight. George Nozawa was a quiet, thoughtful man who provided a number of the newspaper clippings and primary documents that are seen in our film, including his own draft card! The photo from his collection shows George on the right with his good friend, FPC leader Frank Emi:

From Kenji Taguma of the Nichi Bei Times.

I am saddened to report that George Nozawa, said to be the unofficial historian of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, passed away on Monday, April 21.

Details are still somewhat sketchy, but he’s been in failing health recently. I’ve learned of his death through the Koshiyamas in San Jose, who were informed by George’s daughter (I believe that he also has one son).

George has played a central role in the camaraderie between the Amache (Granada) / Tucsonian resisters and Heart Mountain resisters over the years, during a time when the story of the principled stand of the resisters was rapidly coming to light in the 1990s. I remember inviting him to the two Tucsonian (resisters) reunions in Sacramento that I organized, and his compilation of articles of Amache resisters — and their arrests and trials — are still a fond piece of my collection. I am indebted to him for helping to reclaim a piece of history.

Over the years, he has meticulously clipped resister-related articles and has generously shared them with others, myself included.

Last year, my brother Mark and I visited George and his wife, taking along Professor Yukio Morita of Kanazawa University — whose comprehensive book on Nisei resisters [pdf, 3MB] helped to document for eternity the stories of George, my father and other resisters.

Since George lived about a couple of blocks from my brother in Mountain View, my dad would often visit George when at my brother’s, and share some cherished memories.

I will remember George as someone who was straight and narrow. I will truly miss George, another personal hero who may be gone, yet will not be forgotten.

We’re unsure about any services, but it might be good to check in the San Jose Mercury News in the next couple of days. I hear that George was a member of the Mountain View Buddhist Temple.

— Kenji

Kenji also sent an article in the San Bernardino County Sun about the latest performance of “A Community Divided” on April 23 by Frank Emi, Yosh Kuromiya, Paul Tsuneishi and Momo Yashima, with a great 9-picture photo gallery of the event.

In memoriam: Sumi Iwakiri

Aiko Herzig brings us the sad news of the passing of Sumi Iwakiri of Burbank, herself the widow of Brooks Iwakiri. Their names are familiar to viewers as the only individuals named in the funding credits for our film.

Brooks and Sumi, along with Michi and Walter Weglyn, were our first financial angels who provided the crucial seed money to get this film off the ground back in 1992. With their support we were able to capture the interviews that later made up the key eyewitness testimony for our story of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

Sumi was a delightful woman who I remember always having a bemused smile on her face, and it was always my impression that it was she who persuaded Brooks to help us. She will be missed. Frank Chin was with us back then, and now, within hours of receiving the news, writes this online eulogy:

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN!

Sumi Iwakiri persuaded her husband Brooks Iwakiri to pony up a thousand dollars to support Bill Hohri’s NCJAR lawsuit against the gov for redress for the wrongs done to Constitution and the JA people by the Evacuation and Internment. She persuaded the fast talking fast moving Brooks to attend a reading of papers of the organized draft resistance at Heart Mountain at East West Players, when it was an Asian American Theater, and a meeting with James Omura the editor of the WWII Rocky Shimpo and the man who wrote the words that got the leaders of the Fair Play Committee, targeted by the JACL, arrested by the FBI.

Frank Emi. Emi told of taking the testimony of a JACL-FBI stooge lying through his teeth giving evidence that guaranteed all seven of the leaders would be convicted. He did his time at Leavenworth. As if Emi weren’t real enough there was Yosh Kuromiya, a resister who did his time at McNeil Island.

The meeting between the real men of history and the actors of East West Players resulted in a shrinkage of AA theater’s sphincter and a separation of theater art and AA activism. This contagion has spread to Chicago and New York. Coast to coast AA theater is cute ornamental Oriental.

Some good did come from the meeting of resisters and actors. It was open to the public and among the public that came because of Sumi, were her husband the property liquidator, and Bill Hohri and his wife Yuriko.

Suddenly Brooks was a champion of James Omura and Frank Emi, and Yosh Kuromiya and the resisters’ story. He grabbed all the real people up and took them to a tiki restaurant on a hill and bought everyone steaks. He seemed happiest taking these straight taking Nisei Sumi had discovered out to steak dinners and basking in the conversation of people Sumi had discovered. They didn’t talk like any JA he’d ever known. Talk about rights, dodging the JACL, and fighting for their rights then and sadly, now. Brooks had liquidated the houses of Harold Lloyd and the estate of some western star that would have impressed me if Brooks weren’t interested in hearing Frank Emi’s story of being interrogated by the Camp Director, or Jimmie Omura leading us down Denver’s streets of danger, and romance more than telling us of the thousands he pocketed on the deal for William S. Hart ‘s ranch or was it Tom Mix’s?

Brooks showed off his newly enlarged room and wall sized tv and said “I offered to get Sumi a woman to help clean and keep the place up, but Sumi says she won’t hear of it.” Brooks says, and Sumi is shaking her head. It’s her house.

Her wildman passed four years ago. I was at his funeral and spoke as the chronicler of the resisters. I was and am still cracking my way into the right side I used to have, a nerve at a time. I was attempting to say how generously he supported the resisters when I started to laugh for the first time since my stroke four years ago. I laughed uncontrollably and didn’t know how to turn it off. The echoes of his booming voice have gone into the void Japanese American history. Now Sumi Iwakiri is gone. Lung cancer was detected in July. She passed this week. Vince Iwakiri the only son, is alone in his mom’s Burbank house says his mom wanted to depart the scene with no bugles, no flowers, no ceremony. Cards, of course.

— Frank Chin

In memoriam: Bill Hosokawa

Thanks to Kenji Taguma, English Edition Editor of the Nichi Bei Times, for alerting us to the sad news of the passing on Friday of JACL historian Bill Hosokawa.

Read his obituary in the Denver Post, whose editorial page he edited for many years. Bill agreed to be interviewed for our film at the JACL National Convention in 1994, to explain the reasoning behind the organization’s wartime policy of compliance and cooperation with incarceration.

Though we disagreed on many things, on the few occasions we met, Bill was always gracious and accommodating to me, the younger journalist and critic. Whatever its bias in presenting Japanese Americans as the model minority, his landmark book with the title that Edison Uno hated, Nisei: The Quiet Americans, was still the one that first exposed me to the story of camp and Heart Mountain that my father never told me.

I’ll never forget his response when I asked him to sign my copy (well, actually my father’s copy that I took from his shelf and never returned, sorry dad) and asked him about fellow Denver journalist James Omura and the conspiracy trial of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee leaders. He said, “Yeah, they all got convicted and he got off!” — as if he felt Omura should have also been convicted of conspiracy for editorially supporting the wartime draft resistance.

It was on my list of things to do, to ask him once and for all to explain his role as part of Jimmie Sakamoto’s self-described intelligence squad in the Seattle JACL just after Pearl Harbor. Now we’ll never know for sure.

In Memoriam: Mako

I froze when I saw the subject line of Frank Chin’s e-mail. This sad news speaks for itself:

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN: MAKO

Mako died today at his home in Somis, in Ventura County. He was known by his first name only, and used his mother’s surname Iwamatsu. His sister Momo Yashima was with him when he breathed his last. Neither he nor his wife Susie wants a funeral or a memorial, or any kind of service. He was the son of activist anti-militarist painters Taro Yashima and Mitsu Iwamatsu, who fled Japan before WWII. Mako was a sickly child and left with his grandparents in Japan. The story of Taro reunitijng with Mako after the war is told in Taro Yashima’s “picture book,” HORIZON IS CALLING.

Actors who worked with him and those who were trained by him or worked under his direction who feel him in their work may want to get together and get roaring drunk. I don’t know. He spoke at Steve McQueen’s passing, the star of THE SAND PEBBLES, Mako’s first movie that won him an Oscar nomination. I had mixed feelings about RISING SUN with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, but saw this as one of Mako’s best, most textured performances. He wasn’t a bad guy or the butt of a joke. He played an executive of a corporation who loved golf. Perhaps because of his love of golf, he was very good.

If anyone out there wants a Mako film fest and get drunk, be sure to let me know. Asian-American art and culture has lost an inspiration to writers and actors, and art may have lost the only Asian with guts enough to put his talent where his vision is. He was an Asian American who could rough and tumble instead crawl and bat their eyes. This bottle is for you, Mako.

— Frank Chin

Mako believed in our film project on the resisters and lent his name to our fundraising efforts. He graciously provided the voice of the “resister singing in jail” that is heard in our film. He was proud of the connection he made about the song that should accompany the handwritten verses of “Song of Cheyenne,” which we found preserved in the wallet of resister James Kado.

Mako championed the language and dialogue of John Okada’s No-No Boy as the authentic speech of postwar Nisei he wanted to hear more of in American film. In the movie about the resisters, I always wanted him to play Guntaro Kubota, the Issei leader who risked his freedom to help the young boys fight unfair conscription from camp.

He will be deeply missed.

In memoriam: George Kurasaki

George Kurasaki was one of those fellows we wished we could have known, one of the Heart Mountain boys who did not seek attention for himself.

When we were searching for resisters to interview for our film, he was among those who sent word back that they did not wish to be interviewed. But George finally did come out to join us. He came to the JACL apology ceremony to the resisters in San Francisco in 2002. We noted his presence there at the time, and now regret we didn’t follow up with him to learn more.

George passed away just after the new year. The San Jose Mercury-News recognized his life with a fine remembrance, “George Kurasaki, prankster on farm,” (requires subscription) in which we learn of his risking arrest for violating curfew and travel restrictions after Pearl Harbor in order to propose to his sweetheart, and of their getting married before eviction so they could stay together.

In memoriam: Fred Korematsu

Fred Korematsu photoWhile the world is focused today on the death of the Pope, we also mourn the passing of Fred Korematsu last Wednesday at his daughter’s home in Larkspur.

Thanks to Roger Daniels for passing on the obit in the New York Times.

In addition to his many public appearances on behalf of redress and his coram nobis case, Fred was a great supporter of the resisters, recognizing that they, like him, chose to use the courts as their wartime battlefield.

We last saw Fred at the JACL apology ceremony in San Francisco in 2002.

Our condolences to his wife Kathryn and their two children.

In memoriam: Fred Hirasuna

Fred Hirasuna appears in our documentary near the end, standing at the Central California District JACL meeting speaking against any apology to the Heart Mountain resisters. Despite our differences, he graciously invited us to his home in Fresno in 1998 where he told us about his attending the very first JACL convention in 1930. We first heard last week from Martha Nakagawa:

I was just informed that Fred Hirasuna passed away last week. Fred was probably the oldest JACL member (he was in his 90s) and was staunchly against national JACL issuing an apology to the Nisei draft resisters. His feeling was that in times of war it was okay for the U.S. government to ignore constitutional rights. I think now Clarence Nishizu may be the oldest JACL member.

The Frank Chin road show evidently continues with word of another panel on the resisters now scheduled for the Boston Public Library on March 27 at the Organization of American Historians annual conference. Read the full workshop description or download a printable press release. Cherstin Lyon from the University of Arizona writes:

The Organization of American Historians has invited Frank Emi, Frank Chin, Art Hansen, Martha Minow and myself to present a roundtable discussion on the Nisei draft resisters and both the limits and possibilities of recent JACL reconciliation attempts.

Art Hansen will preside, and guide the discussion following the presentations. Frank Emi will begin with his perspective on the resistance and constitutional matters during the war as well as some of his thoughts on the limits of reconciliation. I will speak on resistance that took place in other camps, like that of the Tucsonians from Topaz and Amache, and the community of resisters that they formed by holding reunions and developing life long friendships with each other after the war. I will also comment on some of the other wartime prisoners that the Tucsonians met while in prison who had been convicted of other forms of civil disobedience, like Hopi conscientious objectors and Gordon Hirabayashi, whose case against evacuation and curfew went before the Supreme Court.

Frank Chin will be presenting work from his new book, Born in the U.S.A., as well as his thoughts on the roots of the conflict between “Americanized” JACLers and those who developed a strong, complex Nisei identity before the war, many of whom became resisters in one form or another during the war. Martha Minow will comment based on her extensive research on the Holocaust and reconciliation attempts that followed WWII. Minow is an extremely prolific author on the law and social justice, and is Professor of Law at Harvard University. A formal invitation has been extended to Floyd Mori, president of the JACL, to attend the roundtable and respond from the JACL point of view.