Bill Hosokawa, 92; journalist overcame World War II internment and prejudice
Bill Hosokawa, a former Denver Post editor who was incarcerated in a World War II relocation camp because of his heritage and bucked the prejudice of the era to build a distinguished career as a journalist and chronicler of the Japanese American experience, has died. He was 92.
A longtime Denver resident, Hosokawa died of natural causes Nov. 9 in Sequim, Wash., where he had moved recently to be closer to family members, said his daughter, Christie Harveson.
Hosokawa was for many years the highest-ranking Asian American journalist in the nation. Hired at the Denver Post in 1946, he spent 38 years there as a reporter, editor and columnist. He later worked at the Rocky Mountain News, where he served as ombudsman from 1985 to 1992, when he retired.
He also served for 25 years as Japan’s honorary consul general in Colorado.
He wrote 10 books, including “Nisei: The Quiet Americans” (1969), which explained the struggles faced by Japanese immigrants and their children and awakened many Japanese Americans to their heritage.
But the novel offended younger activists exposed to Asian American empowerment movements in the 1960s and ‘70s, who said the book’s “Quiet Americans” subtitle contributed to the stereotype of Asians as passive, model minorities.
“It was an important book,” said Lane Hirabayashi, the George and Sakaye Aratani professor of the Japanese American internment, redress, and community at UCLA. “It was heralded by many because it was written by a Japanese American about the Japanese American experience. At the same time, it was a controversial book in its own way.”
In the book, Hosokawa described the lives of second-generation Japanese Americans such as himself. He was born in Seattle in 1915, the son of immigrants from Hiroshima who came to the West Coast in the early 1900s. After graduating from high school in 1932, he enrolled at the University of Washington, where he majored in journalism.
One day Hosokawa’s faculty advisor asked him why he persisted in studying journalism.
“I don’t think there’s a newspaper publisher in the country who would hire a Japanese boy,” the professor said, adding that he thought Hosokawa “would be smart to transfer” to another field.
When Hosokawa graduated in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, his professor’s prophecy appeared to come true: He had to go abroad to find work in his chosen profession. From 1939 to 1941 he was a reporter and editor in Asia, working for the English-language Singapore Herald and Shanghai Times. He also wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
In 1941, with hostilities rising throughout Asia, Hosokawa decided to return to the United States. As he later wrote, his timing “couldn’t have been worse.”
He arrived in the U.S. in late October 1941. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor five weeks later. The U.S. declared war, dashing any hopes Hosokawa had of finding a job.
By then married and a father, he went to work in Seattle for the Japanese American Citizens League, which was trying to fight the federal government’s evacuation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. It was a futile effort.
In 1942 Hosokawa and his family were among the more than 110,000 Japanese Americans uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps scattered in several Western states.
“It was a great shock to be a free American citizen one day and the next to find your government has abandoned you,” Hosokawa said in a Denver Post interview in 1999.
He initially was sent with his family to an assembly center in Puyallup, Wash., called Camp Harmony. A few months later, they were assigned to Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
At Heart Mountain, Hosokawa organized a weekly newspaper called the Heart Mountain Sentinel. He also wrote a column for a local newspaper, the Cody Enterprise, in which he portrayed camp life in realistic terms, describing the cramped quarters, frozen water pipes, communal bathrooms and pervasive homesickness.
“It wasn’t bad if you were a young man in the military,” Hosokawa recalled in an interview with the Associated Press in February. “But it was awfully hard for families and little children.”
The population of Heart Mountain eventually swelled to 10,000, which made it Wyoming’s third-largest city. When the War Relocation Authority began allowing people to leave the camps for the interior of the country if they could find work, Hosokawa applied. After a year at the camp, he accepted a job at the Des Moines Register as a copy editor.
When the war ended, he wanted to return to the West. He heard that the Denver Post was hiring, but he was apprehensive because it was known as one of the most flagrantly anti-Japanese newspapers in the nation. He accepted a reporting job after the publisher, Edwin Palmer Hoyt, told him that the Post was going to be a fair newspaper and that Hosokawa would “go as far in this organization as your abilities will take you.”
In 1950 Hosokawa became one of the first Asian American foreign correspondents when he covered the Korean War for the Post; he later reported from Japan and Vietnam. During his last two decades at the paper he served in a variety of posts, including editor of the Sunday magazine and the editorial pages and columnist.
For 50 years, he also wrote a column for the Pacific Citizen, the official newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League. Some of the columns were compiled in two autobiographical volumes, “Thirty-Five Years in the Frying Pan” (1978) and “Out of the Frying Pan” (1998).
His book on the Nisei stemmed from the Japanese American Research Project, launched at UCLA in 1962 to encourage scholarship about Japanese Americans. Supplementing the information in the project’s archives with interviews and his own experiences, he wrote the book to explain to a broad audience that Nisei “is neither a disease nor a tribal name” but the Japanese word that denotes second generation.
The book traces the history of Japanese in America beginning with the first immigrants in the late 1800s. The bulk of it examines the discriminatory campaigns against them during World War II and their postwar drive to assimilate.
The book earned high praise from the New York Times, which said Hosokawa’s “dispassionate reporting limns a classic laboratory case of governmental and human fallibilities suddenly converging in monstrous injustice.” The Washington Post called it “personal, charming, at times wistful and sad.”
Gil Asakawa, a Denver journalist and chairman of the Pacific Citizen’s editorial board, remembers the effect the book had on him when he read it as a high school student in the 1970s.
“If you were in college and attuned to the emerging ‘Yellow Power’ movement,” Asakawa said, “it probably was not radical enough for you. For me in high school, it was like a smack in the head. I thought, ‘Here are people like me.’ It was a very powerful book.”
It opens with a prologue written from the perspective of a Nisei schoolboy who started first grade unable to speak a word of English to his teacher but by sixth grade was playing George Washington in the school play.
Despite the boy’s assimilation, Hosokawa wrote, he considered himself “a creature of two worlds . . . steeped in the American culture but cognizant of an alien heritage.” The boy was Hosokawa.
Hosokawa’s wife of 60 years, Alice, died in 1998, and a son, Peter, died in April. In addition to Harveson, of Sequim, Wash., he is survived by another daughter, Susan Boatright of Littleton, Colo.; a son, Michael, of Columbia, Mo.; a brother, Robert, of Orlando, Fla.; eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.