A tribute to a pioneer

Bill Hosokawa in 2005, sitting next to a caricature at the Denver Press Club

Bill Hosokawa died of natural causes at age 92 in Sequim, Washington, where he lived with his daughter. He was a pioneering Japanese American journalist, author and diplomat who lived in Denver for 60 years.

Those are the facts of Bill’s life and death. But there’s lots more to Bill than just the facts.

I wrote an obituary for Bill that will run in the Pacific Citizen, the newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League, the APA civil rights organization. Bill was a leader within the JACL, and a columnist for the PC for decades. I’m the editorial board chair for the newspaper, and a national board member of JACL, and I knew Bill because we’d run into each other at many events in Denver. So it made sense for me to write the obit for the PC.

But I also owed it to Bill to write about him because he was a role model for me as a writer — we both wrote columns for Denver’s Japanese community newspaper (he kept his up long after I ran out of juice and got too busy). I wrote about Bill’s influence on my career years ago, in one of my columns.

I can still remember when he handed me an award during the Japanese American Community Scholarship Dinner when I was a senior in high school during the mid-1970s, it felt like a huge honor — he was famous in the JA community, and back then, he was easily the highest-ranking Japanese American, and maybe the highest ranking Asian, period, in American media. It was a big deal to meet Bill.

In the years since I became a journalist myself, I got to know Bill not only as a wry, bemused columnist and author of 11 books, but also a diplomat. He served as the Honorary Consul General for Japan in Colorado for 25 years until the Japanese government finally saw fit to appoint an official consulate in Denver. Bill was also an ardent supporter of building business and cultural ties between U.S. and Japan, and was a founder of the Japan America Society of Colorado. I once heard him tell an audience in Japan during a grassroots summit trip, that he was probably the best-known Japanese American in Japan, and he was only half joking.

The last time I saw Bill was probably at an event for the Consul General of Japan, during the spring. He had been getting around with a cane at first and then a walker in recent years, but he was still out and about at receptions and dinners in the area. But during the summer he moved from his townhouse in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, and moved to be with one of his daughters in Washington.

I got the e-mail announcing his death during a national board meeting of the JACL last weekend, and stopped the meeting to let the other board members know. The board immediately made a resolution to express its condolences tp Bill’s family and to acknowledge his contributions to the JA community, and to JACL.

His best-known contribution is for writing “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” the first major history of the JA experience. I read it in high school during the early ’70s, and it remains a milestone in my life. It was the first time that I learned that I had an identity worth treasuring, something beyond a white-bread suburban American upbringing.

I was interviewed by Elaine Woo for an obituary in the LA Times, and she couldn’t seem to grasp how important “Nisei” was to a JA kid in northern Virginia in the early ’70s. Being in a multicultural lace like California with Asian faces everywhere you look, a book about the history of Japanese Americans may seem unremarkable. In the obit she even points out that to the emerging third-generation activists who were radicalized and beginning to actively seek their identity, “Nisei” seemed tame and even reinforced stereotypes of the meek, accommodating model minority.

To me, a kid in a northern Virginia suburb with no Asian friends — a banana if there ever was one — “Nisei” was like an electric jolt of identity. The radicalism cam later; the first step for me was realizing that there were other people like me with an Asian face and Japanese values, but American heart and spirit.

Colorado is more like Virginia when it comes to Asian population and JA identity. I’m much more a part of an APA community now, but it’s a small and disparate one. So having a historical giant like Bill Hosokawa in the area was like having a lighthouse in a fog.

Our challenge, for those of us still writing about our history, culture and identity, is to keep that fog at bay and continue to shine the light of knowledge so that Japanese Americans and Asian Americans of all backgrounds can continue to cherish our heritage, and at the same time, claim our place as Americans.

You can also read obits for Bill from The Denver Post and from the Associated Press. And here’s a piece from columnist Harry Honda in the PC that quotes from a Q&A with Bill that ran in the PC years ago.

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