Kosai Family

Kosai Family Tree (PDF)

A young man, barely an adult, leaves his home, country, and family in the earliest days of the 20th Century. He arrives at an unknown place to begin a new life in a strange world, on his own. He doesn't speak the language or know for sure when, or if, he will find work. He hopes only that he can find enough success to someday return to Japan to find a bride so that together they can return to raise a family in America.

This particular beginning to stories of Japanese settlement is as common as "Once upon a time" is to childhood fairytales. You'll find many versions of this core story when you study the stories of the families represented in Auburn's Pioneer Cemetery. Shinya Kosai's story, however, breaks the mold. When he first set foot on American shores in 1900, he was hardly a young man just embarking on his first adult adventures. He was already 36 years old and had a wife and four sons back home in Japan.

Kiichero Kusai
Kiichero "Tom" Kosai. Photo from the collection of
Kosai descendants David & Beth Matsuyama.

At this date, we may never know what prompted a man with a long established marriage and family to start over from scratch in the United States. We do know, however, that he arrived here in 1900, and probably went first to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, to work as a laborer on the Great Northern Railroad. It appears that he immediately started saving money to bring his family over to join him. The first fare purchased was for oldest son Kiichero, who arrived in 1902. We also know that it was at this time, or at least not long after, that Shinya began farming in Auburn. Presumably son Kiichero, at age 14, was brought over first in order to join his father in the workforce so that they could afford to bring the rest of the family to join them as soon as possible.

According to ship manifest records, Mrs. Suma Kosai came in 1905. Although she had hoped to travel with her friend Mrs. Sen Natsuhara (bound for Auburn as a newly-wed "picture bride"), circumstances prevented that plan from coming to fruition. Suma instead sailed later with her youngest son Gizo from Hong Kong to Vancouver, arriving in Canada on July 28, 1905. Another son (Suejiro) came to the States in about 1908. A fourth son, Shinjiro, remained in Japan.

By 1910, the Kosai family was settled in Christopher (now Auburn), Washington. Shinya Kosai was working as a dairyman that year while his wife worked a "home farm," The younger sons were still at home, but oldest son Kiichero, then age 22, was no longer part of their household. Although he was elusive in the 1910 census, he was probably on his own at that time, earning money in support of the family.

During the next few years, the early days of hard labor and saving began to pay off for the Kosai Family. In 1914, Mrs. Suma Kosai was able to afford a trip back to Japan to visit her son and younger sister. Although her husband and other sons stayed home in Auburn, she was finally able to travel with her friend Sen Natsuhara, along with Sen's husband Chiyokichi.

Sumi Teramura
Sumi Teramura Kosai (wife of Kiichero Kosai). Photo
from the collection of Kosai descendants David & Beth

A year earlier, the Kosai's oldest son Kiichero had married Sumi Tanamura. She gave birth to their first grandchild, Frank, in 1915. Kiichero and his brother Suejiro, probably under the tutelage of their father Shinya, became partners in a dairy business. Kiichero and his wife Sumi were able to purchase property to establish their own family home. Although Kiichero and his brothers were first generation Japanese, they clearly benefitted from a unique situation among their fellow Issei; they had their parents with them to help pave their way and support their efforts in their new country.

Unfortunately, for every small success achieved by the local Japanese community, the tide of anti-Japanese sentiment among their neighbors began to rise. When Shinya Kosai lost his dairy barn to fire in 1916, there was no evidence to prove arson, but the Japanese were increasingly the targets of petty crime and harassment at this time. As if enduring the prejudice of their white neighbors wasn't enough, the Kosai Family suffered several personal tragedies in rapid succession as well. First, Kiichero and Sumi lost a baby boy, their second child, in 1917. The next year, according to family records, Shinjiro Kosai (the son of Shinya and Suma who had stayed behind in Japan) passed away at age 22. Less than a year after this unexpected death, Shinya himself passed away in Auburn at age 57.

In the midst of this grief, Kiichero Kosai found himself at the center of what would turn out to be a landmark lawsuit. He and Sumi, knowing that Washington was about to enact an alien land law that would prevent them from owning property in their own names, put their farm and home into a trust for their oldest son Frank. Unless they did something to protect their investments, the state would apply the new law retroactively, confiscating their property without compensation, and leaving them without a home or any means of support. The law, however, would not apply to the American-born Nesei generation. The senior Kosai's, like many Issei Japanese, would be in the awkward position of being tenants or employees on their minor children's property—if, that is, they wanted any measure of security in their new country.

The King County prosecutor decided that such manipulations were clearly designed to subvert the intention of the new law: to keep real property out of the hands of aliens. His mission was to prove that the Kosai's had established what amounted to a fraudulent trust, one established so that son Frank would be the owner in name only while the parents maintained actual control and possession of the property. Although several Japanese families had also transferred property to their American-born children, the intent was to use the Kosai case to set a precedent to prohibit such schemes in the future.

While the case began its slow way through the state court system, some of Kosai's neighbors sought to enforce the law by their own, more expedient means. In February of 1920, an arsonist struck at Kiichero and Suejiro's dairy. The barn, an Auburn landmark from its earliest days of settlement, was completely destroyed along with everything inside it. Their entire herd—more than twenty cattle—was burned alive. The brothers also lost an automobile, farm machinery, and at least $5000 worth of feed in the conflagration.

Brother Suejiro had had enough. He took his wife and baby daughter to Tacoma, eventually establishing himself as a hotelier there. Youngest brother Gizo joined Suejiro in Tacoma a few years later and also became a hotel operator. Both of the younger Kosai brothers raised families and became respected members of Tacoma's Japanese community.

In the meantime, Kiichero did his best to rebuild the Auburn dairy, although his descendents report that the pressure began to take its toll. His relationship with his wife and children began to suffer, and there's evidence that he began to experience the first symptoms of the heart disease that would later claim his life. Even the state Supreme Court's eventual vindication of the Kosai's did little to improve Kiichero's outlook. The tone of the opinion made it clear that court only reluctantly recognized son Frank as an American citizen with 14th Amendment rights, including the right to own property. Without clear and convincing evidence of fraud, the Court had no grounds to rescind the trust that the Kosai parents had established in his name. The Court's opinion, however, included at least one paragraph that served as a blatant warning to the Kosai's and other Issei Japanese:

"The life of the state is theoretically perpetual, and doubtless, at any time in the future, if it be believed that the aliens, who are not entitled to hold land in this state, are absorbing it or the proceeds thereof belonging to their son, proceedings can be begun by way, perhaps, of office found, to inquire into the conditions surrounding this trust and have proper action taken in the premises."

State v. Kosai, 133 Wn. 442 (1925).

In other words, "Big Brother" would be watching.

Former Kosai farmhose
The former Kosai family farmhouse located on B Street north of NW 29th
St., Auburn, Washington. Photograph taken by John Stamets in 1995 for
the Historic American Building Survery/Historic American Engineering

After their nominal court victory, little improved at the Kosai family's Auburn farm. The family endured ongoing stress that contributed to an increasingly chaotic household. In 1932, daughter Mitsuko, then seven years old, was badly burned when her dress caught fire as she played near a trash fire. She was confined to bed for many months while her burns slowly healed. In 1937, Mrs. Sumi Kosai contracted septicemia after a miscarriage and passed away, leaving Kiichero (who by then had health problems of his own), with the sole responsibility for the farm and their eight surviving children. Just two years later, Kiichero's mother Suma passed away in Japan.

In 1942, a devastated Kiichero Kosai was sent with his family to Pinedale and Tule Lake internment centers in California before being transferred to Minidoka in Southern Idaho for the balance of the war. His son Minoru enlisted in the celebrated 442nd Regiment, the most highly decorated military unit in the history of the United States Armed Forces. Minoru himself earned a Purple Heart before the close of the War. His devotion to his country made little difference for his family, unfortunately. The farm that had been at the center of the court battle and which they had struggled so hard to keep was foreclosed in their absence. By then Kiichero was suffering with heart disease and was unable to withstand the extreme conditions that the internees had to endure at Minidoka. He died there in April of 1945. Although some of his brother's children (who had also been interned) returned to Tacoma after the War, none of the Kosai family ever lived in Auburn again.

Special thanks to Beth Matsuyama, wife of Kosai descendant David Matsuyama, for her assistance in compiling this report.

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