BY DEAN WONG
Shinya Kosai was more than just a farmer in the White River Valley during the turn of the century. He was a pioneer and community leader among Japanese farmers who settled in what is now Auburn, Washington.
He emigrated from Japan in 1899. The next year he bought his farm, raising dairy cattle and planting crops.
While most of the early Japanese farmers were single men, Shinya left his wife Waki and three sons behind in Japan.
“He came to the U.S. for more opportunity. He was an enterprising person,” said grandson Joe Kosai of Tacoma.
Shinya Kosai worked hard to establish the Kosai farm while waiting for the rest of his family to join him.
Oldest son Kiichiro came to the United States in 1902 at the age of 14. “My grandmother (Waki) came in 1905 with Gizo (age six) and Suejiro came in 1908 (age 14),” said Joe Kosai, whose father was Gizo.
By the time the family was reunited, Shinya Kosai had established himself in this small farming community. He helped found the White River Buddhist Church.
In 1916 the Kosai farm caught on fire. Three years later, in 1919, Shinya Kosai passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Because he was one of the better-known farmers in the valley, a large funeral service was held at the White River Buddhist Church in his honor. The ceremony was described as elaborate.
Kiichiro Kosai established his own farm on 75 acres where the Emerald Downs racing track is now.
An arson fire on February 16, 1920 caused $15,000 in damage to Kiichiro’s farm. A large herd of high grade cattle, feed, farm machinery and an car was lost in the fire.
The Auburn Globe Republican reported that the fire was of incendiary origin. A neighbor’s dog had reportedly barked at an intruder.
Discouraged by the fires, Gizo Kosai left White River and bought the Berkeley Hotel in Tacoma. At the time there were 15 Japanese American owned hotels in the city.
The hotel was small, with about a dozen rooms. Gizo and his Waki raised seven children in the Berkeley Hotel, sons Yoshio, Aizo a.k.a “Buster,” Masayoshi, Frank, Joe and daughters Hatsumi and Reiko.
Waki Kosai ran the hotel, while Gizo worked in a sawmill.
The family was among 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent sent to internment camps. Tacoma Japanese were relocated to Tule Lake in Northern California according to Joe Kosai.
Gizo Kosai ended up on an FBI list because he was drafted into the Japanese Army when he went back to Japan with his mother to return Shinya’s ashes to the old county.
Gizo Kosai only lasted four months in the military because he could not read or write Japanese. Joe Kosai believes his mother may have paid money to get her son out of military service.
Back in the United States, Gizo Kosai was picked up by the FBI as a community leader and businessman. He was released in August 1942 and joined his family at Tule Lake.
“We were already in camp. He met us there. He did not say much. He did a lot of translating for people in camp,” said Joe Kosai.
After getting out of Tule Lake, the family leased a farm in Ontario, Oregon. “He knew someone there. He had no money to start something new. With six kids (Frank died at the age of three), it was best to go farm and work,” said Joe Kosai.
Gizo Kosai retired from farming in 1962. The children moved back to the Seattle Tacoma area where Yoshio built a house for his parents.
Gizo died the next year. Waki passed away in 1970.
The children went on to build successful careers. Hatsumi and Reiko worked at Nordstrom’s for many years. Aizo was an accountant. Masayoshi was a bacteriologist. Yoshio graduated from Washington State University and Yale. He helped start Pierce Transit in Tacoma.
Joe Kosai, who is now 71 years old, had a career in education after serving in the U.S. Army.
He became a school teacher in the Tacoma Public Schools. From there he was an administrator and counselor at Tacoma Community College.
Joe Kosai is active in the Japanese American Citizen’s League where he is now vice president of the Puyallup Valley Chapter.
He is president of the Tacoma Buddhist Church and chair of the Board of Trustees at Clover Park Technical College.
Kosai has also worked with the Tacoma Human Rights Committee and the Municipal League of Tacoma.
On June 29, 2005 Joe Kosai was recognized by Emperor Akihito of Japan who gave him “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays With Rosettes” award.
The award was given to Joe Kosai for his work in the Japanese American community and for his efforts to develop relations between Japan and the United States.
Consul General Kazuo Tanaka made the formal presentation that included a medal.
“It was humbling. Unfortunately those awards are only given to a few individuals like myself. I did not do anything. You have to have a lot of help,” said Joe Kosai.
When asked how his parents would have reacted to the honor awarded him by the Emperor of Japan, he had this to say.
“My mother would be real happy. My father would say ‘how come you got it.’ He’s more like an American,” said Joe Kosai.
He is on the Board of Directors of the Tacoma Kitakyushu Sister City Committee. On August 13, 2005 he left for Japan as part of a high school baseball exchange program.
Sixteen Tacoma high school seniors who graduated this year were chosen to be on a select baseball team to play against their peers in Kitakyushu.
Kosai retired in 1989. Not content with retirement and his community activities, Joe Kosai opened the Kabuki Restaurant in 1992 and has built a thriving business. A year and a half ago he closed the restaurant’s lounge and replaced it with the Kosai Flowers shop.
Some of the information in this article was originally published in The North American Post and the book “Shirakawa, Stories from a Pacific Northwest Japanese American community,” published by the White River Valley Museum and written by Stan Flewelling.