Why Internment? — Joseph Kosai and the Story of Japanese-Americans During World War II

Interview and Project By Arlene Mihara; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“People misunderstand the question of who we were. The constitutional rights of American citizens were deprived…People still don’t understand we were not the enemy. We were Americans.” — Joseph Kosai.

Joseph Kosai was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1934. He was a Nisei, a first generation Japanese born in the United States.

Just two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans to evacuate the West Coast. The executive order resulted in the relocation of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps across the United States.

Kosai, who was eight years old at the time, was transported with family members first, to an assembly center in Pinedale, California, then to Tule Lake, where Kosai’s extended family was dispersed and sent to different camps.

“As a child you don’t pay too much attention to the world or national events,” Kosai stated. “I do know that when the war started, my father worked in the sawmill. Also, he owned a hotel business, which my mother operated, here in Tacoma. Shortly after the war started, my father was taken by the FBI to Montana..It was May 10, 1942 when the posters went up. [Stating] the people from Tacoma had to leave [by] May 17 and May 18.”

Kosai, his mother, and younger sister were then sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, where they would remain until May 17, 1945. In total, Kosai and his family spent three years in American internment camps.

Kosai described the camps as small, cramped, and difficult. Many families were forced to share just one room with as many as 8 people. He also explained that the fences surrounding the camps are what made him feel like a prisoner.

“When you look at the fences in camp, if you want to keep someone out of your yard or some property, you’ll find that the fence goes up vertically but then at the top the barbed wire sticks out away from you to the outside. But in camp, it came in to keep us from going out.”

Residents of Block Seven, Minidoka Relocation Center, ID. 1943-1945. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The adjustment after internment was also difficult for Kosai and his family. His family had owned a hotel in Tacoma before the war, but due to the Alien Land Law his family lost the businesses while interned.

After the war Kosai’s family moved to Ontario, Oregon. Some Japanese-American citizens of were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in 1945, and the last camp closed in March 1946.

Kosai didn’t return to Washington State until he began college at the University of Washington, Seattle. After attending UW, Kosai served in the Army from 1956 to 1958, and completed his BS in Education with a major in mathematics at Eastern Oregon in 1959. During college, Kosai began to reflect on his time in internment camps and became actively involved in the civil rights movement. His desire to get involved grew after witnessing the segregation of blacks and whites in the South.

In 1964, Kosai became president of the Puyallup Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. As president, Kosai helped fight to repeal the Alien Land Law in the State of Washington — the law was finally repealed in 1966.

Kosai said that even after the war, Japanese-Americans faced constant racism and injustice.

“People misunderstand the question of who we were. The constitutional rights of American citizens were deprived…People still don’t understand we were not the enemy. We were Americans. They still think that [because] we’re ethnically Japanese that we are citizens of Japan,” he continued.

Kosai went on to earn his Masters in Education in 1965 from the University of Puget Sound and began a teaching high school in Tacoma in 1959. He continued his career at Tacoma Community College in 1966, and after 23 years at TCC, retired in 1989.

Kosai received awards from the City of Tacoma, Municipal League of Tacoma, the Human Rights Commission, and the town of Takuma, Japan. He died in November of 2008 at the age of 74.

View the complete oral history project: Why Internment? The Story of Japanese-Americans During World War II by Arlene Mihara