Hawai‘i Hochi Writer Iwao Kosaka Returns to His Wartime “Home”

Karleen C. Chinen
(Reprinted from Oct. 7, 1988)

The mountains were Kosaka-san’s only guideposts — Abalone Hill to the northeast, Castle Rock to the southwest. If he found them, Hawaii Hochi writer Iwao Kosaka would have found what had been his wartime home 45 years ago.

It was a pilgrimage Kosaka-san, Herald advertising manager John Nakama and I will never forget — and one that John and I, as Sansei, will always treasure as one of the greatest experiences of our lives. As we inched upward through Northern California along Interstate 5, almost to the Oregon border — past Corning, Reddings, Dunsmuir, Mt. Shasta, Weed and, finally, Dorris — I wondered how Kosaka-san would react when we finally reached what he and about 29,500 other Japanese Americans had called “home” during World War II: Tule Lake Relocation Center.

“That’s the Tule grass that Tule Lake is named for,” said Kosaka-san, pointing at the reed-like grasses that grew in abundance on the banks of the Lower Klamath Wildlife Preserve. Other than that, he was silent — his eyes darting left and right, searching for his bearings — the two familiar mountains.

Within minutes, we were driving past the small town of Tulelake. A tall, galvanized steel water tower with the name “TULELAKE” painted around it in bold black letters stood proudly in the center of the town. Somehow, it seemed strange that a town would be named Tulelake, a familiar name, but with a different spelling than the one I had always associated with the shameful act of 46 years ago. But Tulelake, the town, was not the home of Tule Lake, the internment camp. That Tule Lake was still a few more miles ahead of us.

The sun was still high in the late afternoon sky. The vastness of mainland America stretched out before us as we headed east toward the town of Newell. The farther northeast we traveled, the more remote from civilization everything seemed to become. That was my first clue that we were nearing Tule Lake, which had been constructed over a dried-up lakebed. The other clue was the road sign telling us that we were entering the town of Newell. Population: 300.

Ironically, back in the mid-1940s, the sign would have read much differently. Population: 19,000.

There are some things memory does not erase, not even after 45 years, especially when it’s all you’ve seen for almost three years. Images of Castle Rock with its fortress-like summit, and Abalone Hill, shaped like an abalone, were as vivid in Kosaka-san’s mind today as they were the day he left Tule Lake Relocation Center in March of 1946. When his landmarks finally appeared in the distance, Kosaka-san knew he had come “home.”

Our 1988 journey by car to find Tule Lake began in San Francisco. In 1942, Kosaka-san’s journey had started in Honolulu.

Prior to leaving on our pilgrimage, Kosaka-san and I had retraced the steps leading to his internment on the Mainland — first in Utah, and then in Northern California.

In July of 1942 — seven months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — Kosaka-san was ordered to report to the FBI’s Honolulu office in the Dillingham Transportation Building for questioning. People like Kosaka-san, who was born in Hawai‘i, were considered by the FBI to be prime suspects as spies because he was Kibei-Nisei — born outside of Japan, but educated in Japan. Kosaka-san had also taught Japanese language school until the war broke out, when he began working as a carpenter’s helper.

The thought that the FBI would want to question him surprised Kosaka. Two years earlier, he and two fellow Japanese school teachers had reported to the Honolulu Armory to take their physical examination for induction into the Army. His friends had passed their physicals with flying colors, but Kosaka was classified a permanent 4-F and exempted from military service because of his extremely poor eyesight. His friends, Tsuyoshi Furukawa and Toshio Miura, went on to serve in the highly decorated 100th Infantry Battalion. Both were killed in action.

Upon arriving at the FBI office, he informed the agents of his Selective Service classification. It made no difference to them that just two years ago, the American government had wanted him to serve in the U.S. Army.

Kosaka-san remembers the questions of the FBI interviewers: “Can you shoot your father if your father came to attack Hawai‘i?” Kosaka turned the tables on them. “I wonder if I can shoot him. How about you? Can you shoot your father?” he asked the agents. Kosaka remembers an agent of Japanese ancestry seated at the next table, eavesdropping on his interrogation. “He came to me and said [in Japanese] that because of Japanese like me, all the Japanese are going to suffer.” Kosaka-san asked him whether he was Japanese. “He shut up and walked away. . . . Maybe I should have said, ‘Sure I’m going to shoot my father.’ But it’s not an honest answer.”

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