Home History Discover Nikkei Bill Hosokawa: Out of the Frying Pan

Bill Hosokawa: Out of the Frying Pan

Bill and Alice Hosokawa. Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family (96.267.1118)

by Michael Hosokawa

He sat in his special chair, a blanket covered his knees, the sun warming him. Around him lay the ruins of five newspapers. His morning task was complete now, he had checked on the world. He wanted to see how newspapers covered the same stories. At the end of a remarkable career, he was still the ultimate journalist.

Bill Hosokawa was in the ninth decade of life, his 70th as a journalist. Shortly, he would move to Seattle to live with his daughter. Life began in Seattle 92 years ago, and, like the storied salmon, he would return and the cycle of life would be complete.

The first-born American son of immigrant parents, his father wanted to help his son, Kumpei, to fit in at public school so “William” would be a good name. Like other children of immigrants, Kumpei Bill Hosokawa went off to public school not speaking English. A good student, he liked English and American history. Children of Japanese immigrants were between their Americanizing education and their family history, culture, and traditions based in a country that was only an outline on the classroom world globe.

Bill’s father, Setsugo Hosokawa came to America at age 16 to work on the railroad. He left the railroad and traveled around as a farm worker, houseboy and domestic before settling in Seattle running an employment agency. In 1913, Setsugo returned to Japan to meet Kimiyo, the bride whom had been selected for him. Perhaps she had no choice but to follow an unknown adventurer to America, although he was quite handsome with a mustache, bowler hat, and rimless glasses.

They had two sons. Bill was very much the introvert compared to his younger brother Ritsuro, Americanized to Robert. Bill was a giant at five foot ten and about 150 pounds; he was much bigger than his Nisei peers. In family photos, he towers above his parents and brother who were just over five feet.

At age 14, Bill entered Garfield High School in Seattle. During the summers, Bill joined many Nisei boys who went to Alaska to work in the salmon canneries. Hired and paid as adults, the boys worked 60 hours a week cutting and cleaning fish, feeding fish into processing machinery, and packing cans for shipment. The pay was $75 a month. The boys lived in bunkhouses, one for whites and one for Asians.

Bill’s interest in journalism developed as the sports editor of the high school newspaper. During the Depression years, jobs were difficult to find out of high school and college was affordable. In 1933, Bill enrolled at the University of Washington to study journalism. He lived at home and evenings he worked for the Japanese American Courier published by Jimmie Sakamoto, a former boxer blinded by ring injuries. Bill did not have a salary. The Courier paid his tuition.

Ready to graduate, Bill met with his journalism advisor and was told no newspaper would hire a “Japanese boy.” The only job Bill could find was as a secretary at the Japanese consulate in Seattle writing letters and speeches for the consul. The career diplomat was transferred to Singapore where he wrote to Bill that a Japanese publisher planned an English-language newspaper and sought an editor in the American style of journalism.

Bill faced two dilemmas. Did he want to go to Singapore? More importantly, would Alice, his new bride, go with him? Alice grew up in Portland and she and her younger brother lived with their widowed mother. A difficult decision was made and Bill and Alice ventured off to Singapore where Bill learned all aspects of running a newspaper. They faced another dilemma after a year and a half—whether or not to return to the U.S. for the birth of their first child. There were concerns about the quality of health care in China and whether Bill could find employment in the U.S. They decided that Bill would remain in Asia. During this time, he developed a deeper understanding of Asian affairs. As Japan aggressively spread its influence throughout Asia, Bill offered a unique perspective as an American; however, at times his columns were interpreted as pro-Japan.

As war loomed, Bill caught the last ship to leave China and re-united with his wife and 14-month-old son two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Executive Order 9066 questioned the loyalty of Japanese Americans. As a leader in the Seattle Japanese-American community, Bill and others worked for understanding between the community and the government. They advocated for cooperation with the E.O. 9066 orders as a show of loyalty to the government. Suspicion persisted that Bill was pro-Japan based on his past writings. FBI documents caused him to appear before a grand jury because he worked as a secretary at the Japan Consulate in Seattle in 1937. The grand jury did not view his job as a secretary to be indictable. Japanese American leaders were separated to prevent collusion. From the assembly center in Puyallup, Washington, Bill and his family went with an armed escort to Heart Mountain rather than Minidoka, Idaho where most of the Seattle Nikkei were sent.

At Heart Mountain, Bill was editor of the Heart Mountain Sentinel and taught English so students could earn their GED. Many of Bill’s later books and writings chronicle the pre-war and relocation experiences.

The camp newspaper published camp news as well as informed the population of this small city about national events and news from the warfront. There were staff from the federal War Relocation Authority who managed the relocation. One in particular, Vaughn Mechau, had oversight responsibilities for the Sentinel assuring the content met government guidelines. The two families remained close friends long after the camp. Vaughn was largely responsible for having the Des Moines Register newspaper sponsor Bill for an early release from Heart Mountain.

At the Des Moines train station, the family was met by Ross Wilbur, a member of the Quakers. The Quakers assisted with the re-entry of internees just as they have assisted with the resettlement of other displaced groups.

The Register was a morning newspaper so Bill left at dinnertime to catch the bus and worked throughout the night to put the paper on the streets at dawn. The family, now four, had saved enough money for a down payment on their first house. Despite continuing suspicion of Japanese Americans, the move to a new neighborhood was uneventful. Pauline Lynam, a diminutive retired pharmacist, had met with all the neighbors to tell the story of the relocation.

An opportunity came at the Denver Post. The Post had been anti-Japanese American describing enemy aliens being coddled in the camps with comfortable housing and food. Palmer Hoyt, the new Post publisher promised change. He hired Bill and they became close friends.

The family grew from four to five and soon to be six. It was time to find a new home. East Denver was the growth area, but there was subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against Jews, African Americans, and Latinos. The Hosokawas encountered vigorous objections to moving into a neighborhood. A judge advised against the objections and the employees of the Denver Post held a celebration at the new Hosokawa house in a display of support.

Bill’s career continued to progress as editor of the Post’s Sunday magazine section, associate editor and war correspondent as he covered Korea and Vietnam using his expertise in Asian affairs. As editor of the editorial page, he covered summit meetings and other events. The locally-owned Denver Post was sold to the Times Mirror in 1980. Many of the staff were replaced by the new owners, but Bill remained on until 1984, when he was retired although he felt he had more to do.

The rival Rocky Mountain News hired him. His new column addressed readers’ questions explaining the whys and hows in the world of journalism. In 1976, Japan had appointed Bill as the honorary Japanese consul for the Rocky Mountain states developing business and cultural relationships between the two countries until 1999, when a full-time paid consul was appointed.

Throughout his career, he stirred controversy. His early writings from Asia were sometimes viewed as pro-Japan. His book title, “Nisei, The Quiet Americans,” was criticized as stereotyping Americans of Japanese ancestry as quiet, obedient model minorities when they should have resisted the relocation. Most of his critics were too young to have experienced the camps. Initially, he did not favor reparations for internees feeling that putting a price on the camp ordeal was wrong. Eventually, he supported redress.

Bill wrote 11 books, most of them chronicle the experiences of Japanese Americans. Asked what was his best book, he said, “My next book.” Bill was honored in many ways. In 1961, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of student riots in Japan. In 2003, he received the lifetime achievement award from the Asian American Journalists Association. The Anti-Defamation League awarded him the annual Civil Rights Award in 2007. He was dedicated to assuring the rights of all people and following 9/11, he spoke vigorously against generalized anti-Muslim and anti-Middle East backlash. Today, memorials to Bill Hosokawa are in the Denver Botanical Gardens and the Denver Public Library.

Reflecting on my father’s life and his influences on me, I owe many of my successes to my parents. Bill was a person of principle and compassion. He tried to view things from several perspectives, perhaps the reason his early writings were viewed as pro-Japan. He lived the American Dream, perhaps the reason he strongly supported cooperation with E.O. 9066. He believed every person has stories and we know people by their stories. He knew people from the inside out rather than the outside in, a lesson I apply daily in educating tomorrow’s doctors.

Michael Hosokawa was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1940. Currently he is Senior Associate Dean at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. His daughter, Ashlyn, lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and son, Michael, lives in Houston, TX. Grandchildren Emily and Sean are both students at Texas A&M.

Editor’s note. This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei (www.discovernikkei.org), which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.