Mits Koshiyama Recalls Japanese American Resistance to Incarceration
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Mits Koshiyama Recalls Japanese American Resistance to Incarceration

Mits Koshiyama is a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American born in 1924 in Mountain View, California. He grew up in the Santa Clara Valley, working on his family’s leased strawberry farm. In June 1942, he was removed to Santa Anita Assembly Center, California (a converted race track), and then taken to Heart Mountain incarceration camp, Wyoming. Mits graduated from high school in camp and at the age of 19, refused induction into the military on the grounds that the incarceration violated his Constitutional rights as an American citizen. He served two years at McNeil Island federal penitentiary, Washington. Over 300 resisters of conscience were convicted of draft evasion. In 1947 President Harry Truman pardoned them all, but the Japanese American community shunned them as “troublemakers.” In this interview excerpt Mits recollects a fellow high school student’s stance on civil liberties. He mentions the coram nobis cases, the rehearing of three wartime Supreme Court cases brought by Japanese Americans who challenged the legality of their incarceration.

Listen to Audio:

AI: Well, so now you’re in Heart Mountain. It’s fall of 1942, and you still haven’t finished your high school. What happened then after, when you got to Heart Mountain then? Was there a school all ready for you to join in the, start going to class again?

MK: Yeah, at the, the early school was in the barracks. Later on, they built the high school there, and gymnasium and everything. While we were there, we went to the barracks. We had, some were teachers, some were teachers' aides, some were Caucasians from the outside, and they taught all the kids, I guess the best of their ability under the condition. A funny thing, when I went to school there, nobody talked about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the deprivation of our constitutional rights. We were taught school like a normal school, like on the outside. Probably wrote compositions “Why I’m proud to be an American,” too. [Laughs] Isn’t it ridiculous, but that’s the way it was. I do remember a student writing, “Why We Are Prisoners in a Concentration Camp.” I remember that. I, I thought, “Gee, that kid there is really bright and has a lot of courage to write a composition like that. But everybody else is, ”Why I’m proud to be American,“ and you know, waving the flag and everything. Kind of ridiculous, but that, that’s the way people thought in those days. This one kid wrote about the Constitution and the deprivation of our rights. And I said, ”Wow." That put a kind of a seed in my mind, too. We’re taking this evacuation and incarceration too lightly. It actually is a deprivation, like this student says, of our constitutional rights. Probably didn’t hit a lot of people, but, because I had, because I went to detention and learned about the Constitution and all that. It really hit me, because I, I knew this kid was right. Why were we there? We didn’t do anything wrong. We were denied due process of the law, which is supposed to be God-given right to all Americans, and I just couldn’t understand it, why more people didn’t fight it. Like the coram nobis cases. There was only three, three out of 120,000 that refused to be evacuated. You would think if everybody believed in the Constitution and all that, there’d be a bigger percentage.

AI: It’s July 14, 2001, we’re continuing our interview with Mits Koshiyama. And Mits, I wanted to ask you to back up a bit. In the interview, you had just mentioned about, learning about the Constitution when you were in detention.

MK: Uh-huh.

AI: And you were referring to a time before the concentration camp when you were in high school back in, at Fremont High School. So would you tell a little bit about what happened, how come you were in detention, and what, what you learned while you were there.

MK: Actually, it was in grade school when it happened. I think that was about the seventh grade. I would be called by the other kids, one day, “Jap.” I resented it, so I kind of fought with them. First thing I knew I was called into the principal’s office, and I was sent to detention class. I don’t know if the teacher trying to help me or make, punish me. I, detention is for punishment. So I believe that she made me study all about the Constitution because that’s the subject I, kids didn’t want to study. So I didn’t want to be punished anymore, so I studied the Constitution pretty hard. Then the teacher told me, she checked my papers and everything and, “What’d you learn? Don’t you know that all Americans are supposed to fight for their constitutional rights?” And it’d kind of go through one ear and the other. But I read everything about the Constitution and how it should, it’s supposed to protect all citizens. She told me, “It protects all citizens,” she told me. “Don’t you understand?” she told me — [laughs] — “It protects all citizens. It’s for your own protection that the Constitution was written.” I, it finally sunk into my head. It took a little while, but I didn’t just go to detention one day. I had so many fights that it looked like I was there, oh, most of the time. Most every recess I had to spend in detention. But it, it did turn out to be real helpful to me later on. I did realize that, like she said, the Constitution is the main law of the land. It doesn’t mean — you know presidents come and go, teachers come and go, governments come and go — but she says, “The Constitution be always there no matter what.” She says, “You’d better learn all about the Constitution because sooner or later it’s gonna help you.” It sure did.

I, my soul was clean because I, I really believed in the Constitution, and I believed that they should protect me at, when I needed it the most. And that, the belief in that Constitution kind of pulled me through all this difficulties that I had during the war years. I, I knew that sooner or later — I’m not a prophet or anything — but I know by, let’s say common sense, that sooner or later after the war that people were going to realize that standing up for constitutional rights is the most important thing. And it’s proven to be true. Like I was telling somebody today, the resisters‘ story — was that you? [Laughs] Resisters’ story is like the Boston Tea Party — “taxation without representation.” Drafting us without rights is like taxation without representation. And that’s why I call it the, draft resistance, the “Japanese Boston Tea Party.” I guess a lot of people laugh about that, but there’s lot of similarities.

Source: Mits Koshiyama, interview, July 14, 2001, Seattle, Washington. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewer: Alice Ito, segment 10, denshovh-kmits-01 (accessed October 14, 2009).