Sunday, February 17, 2013

Reverend Sohei Kowta: The Sunday Before

ABOVE: Reverend Sohei Kowta at the Union Church in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, November 6, 1950. Kowta was the clergy for the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church from 1938 to 1942, during which time the Kowta family lived in the manse, one of the historic structures on the property. (Photograph, Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, 96.267.70) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

*Updated April 2017*

"...those not acquainted with the West Coast conditions in the spring of 1942  could hardly grasp the significance and faith revealed in these messages."
                                                                    The Sunday Before, May 1945

    Theologian E. Stanley Jones wrote a forward to a little-known mimeographed collection of sermons by West Coast Japanese American clergy, The Sunday Before, delivered prior to the community's forced removal from the West Coast.  Jones--himself a Methodist missionary nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award--observed in 1945 that he saw "a spirit meeting disaster in a triumphant way and making it into something else."

   Among the sermons recorded is one by the Reverend Sohei Kowta, clergy at the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church from 1938 until forced removal from California in 1942.  Reverend Kowta and his family lived in the 1910 manse (parsonage) next to the Mission building.

Reverend Sohei Kowta
   The Sunday Before includes a preface to the sermons, describing each pastor who wrote it.  Reverend Kowta's description was written about his time in Wintersburg.

   "Young people used to come to Rev. Kowta's church from miles around," explains the pamphlet, describing how Wintersburg Village functioned as the heart of Orange County's Japanese community.  

LEFT: A photograph of Reverend Sohei Kowta during the time he was the clergy at the Wintersburg Japanese Church. (Santa Ana Register, February 8, 1940)

   "He has no gray hairs; he wears a short stubby moustache; his eyes are sharp, but ever have an infectious smile of both eyes and mouth. His good-natured banter lightens up the sometimes too solemn meetings of the church federation."

     "He is probably one of the best English speakers amongst Issei preachers," the description continues.  "At the same time, he puts his main point over in the old style; it is suggested rather than hammered home; it is left 1n the background to be sensed by the imagination rather than to be analyzed with words."

The Kowta family
    Reverend Kowta's children recently provided Historic Wintersburg with memories of living at the manse in Wintersburg Village.

  "I remember the very high ceiling in the bedroom (of the manse), which seemed like a social hall," recalls Tadashi Kowta, the eldest of the Kowta children.  "When I visited the manse about 10 to 15 years later, I bumped my head on the ceiling of one of the back rooms."

ABOVE: The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian manse, west of the Mission building, boarded and fenced.  (Photo, January 17, 2013) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  "The Church was painted white and it stood out in the neighborhood, since there were no high rise buildings. The area was flat with farmlands," remembers Tadashi Kowta.  At the time, the Furuta children were adults in their twenties and other children to play with were scattered throughout the farmlands.  Tadashi Kowta particularly recalled the Akiyamas, Furutas, Kanegaes, Kannos, and Nitta families.
  "The Church had a large backyard," Tadashi Kowta relays.  "So we raised animals, such as sheep, mallard ducks, chicken, etc.  Next door neighbors were the Furutas with their gold fish farm, which we visited periodically."

    "Near the manse, there was a grocery store," remembers Tadashi Kowta, likely talking about the Tashima Market (formerly Asari Market).  "I had gone there to purchase something and I was in the check out line.  A policeman in his uniform came up to me and grabbed me.  I was so scared and I don't remember what he said.  He let go of me and told me he was only kidding."

LEFT: Tadashi Kowta, 83, at a  Shinnenkai (lunar New Year) celebration in Little Tokyo historic district, Los Angeles, California.  (Photo, February 2, 2013) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

    Tadashi Kowta remembers "a slaughterhouse very close to the church." This would have been the butcher recalled by Yukiko Furuta in her 1984 oral history as MacIntosh's Meat House, on what is now Nichols Lane.

ABOVE: Tadashi Kowta talks to Little Tokyo Historical Society members on a tour of Historic Wintersburg in April 2017. (Photo, M. Urashima, April 8, 2017) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

   Tadashi Kowta--says he "faintly remembers the church services, which I attended faithfully"-- and described a favorite Christmas morning at the manse.

   "One Christmas, probably when I was 9 or 10, I received a baseball glove from my parents," Tadashi Kowta recalls.  "It was one of my joyous moments and I climbed onto their bed while they were still in it and pounded the glove with glee."  He remembers taking the glove to the Ocean View Grammar School to play softball.

ABOVE: The Ocean View Grammar School, circa 1927, a decade before Tadashi Kowta attended the school at the corner of present-day Beach Boulevard and Warner Avenue. (Photograph, Chris Jepsen, © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

   The Kowtas visited Japan before moving to their new ministry assignment in Wintersburg, where the Kowta children were enrolled at the Ocean View Grammar SchoolTadashi Kowta explains his mother was frail and they lived with his grandparents for two years so his mother, Riyo, could receive help raising Tadashi, his brother, Makoto, and sister, Hiroko.

ABOVE: Riyo Kowta, wife of Reverend Sohei Kowta, with Hiroko (standing), Tadashi and Makoto, by the manse on what is now Nichols Lane near present-day Warner Avenue in the former Wintersburg Village.  (Photograph courtesy of the Kowta family) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

   "When we came back from Japan, I was placed in the first grade at age 8 years," writes Tadashi Kowta, who says his favorite class was mathematics.  "I have jokingly stated that I was the dumbest kid on the block for I was in the first grade for the third time!  I attended the first two grades in San Francisco, where I was born, then to Tokyo and Shizuoka for two years.  I was placed in the first grade, since I did not know Japanese.  Then to Ocean View's first grade, since I did not know English.  I soon moved up to the third grade." 

LEFT: Tadashi Kowta visiting the manse where he lived as a child, on the Furuta farm at Historic Wintersburg in April, 2013.  He has been a staunch supporter of the preservation effort, driving to Orange County from Los Angeles to speak at Huntington Beach planning commission and city council meetings.  (Photo, April 2013) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
    Tadashi Kowta also attended the Costa Mesa Japanese Language School associated with the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, where his father, Reverend Kowta, also fulfilled the role of superintendent.  The language school was on land donated to a member of the Japanese community by Fanny Bixby Spencer (story at 

December 1941
   "On December 7th or 8th, the FBI came to interrogate my father, since he was the pastor, superintendent of the Japanese Language School, and probably by inference, a leader of the Japanese community," remembers Tadashi Kowta.  Reverend Kowta is remembered as quietly summoning the strength necessary to support his family and his congregants.

   "I did not know who he was," says Tadashi Kowta of the FBI, describing that day at the manse, "but the door to my father's study room was closed for what I thought was several days.  In reading my father's diary after his death, I learned that it was only a day."

LEFT: The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian manse, adjacent to the Mission, circa 1910-1911. (Photo courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

   "Nevertheless, during that time, I remember sitting by the chicken coop tearfully wondering what was going to happen to me, our family--Japan and the U.S. were at war, my mother was frail," Tadashi Kowta recalls the worry.  "I wondered whether I had to take responsibility for the family, if they did something to my father, questioning whether I could assume that kind of responsibility for I was only 11 years old!"

    "In May 1942, we left Ocean View Elementary School," Tadashi Kowta describes their forced removal in May 1942, for an unknown future in confinement. Teachers and children came to say goodbye.

   "The whole school seemed to have come to say, 'good bye' to us,"  says Tadashi Kowta, of Ocean View Grammar School, reminiscent of others' oral histories about Huntington Beach High School at the time of their forced departure.  "Even though I did not know where we were going, it felt nice to receive a send off."

The Sunday Before
    For one of his last sermons before internment, Reverend Kowta traveled to the Japanese Union Church in Little Tokyo, for the installation of Reverend Donald Toriumi.  His message--memorialized in the booklet, The Sunday Before--is likely one he delivered to his congregants in Wintersburg and at a meeting with clergy in Westminster near the end of April, 1942.

   Reverend Kowta raises the imagery of Abraham and the mass migration of a people into the desert.  His message recognizes the hardship and uncertainty in the days ahead and reminds his congregants that "Abraham went out not knowing whither he went," asking them to have faith.

   "Ever since the problem of evacuation became public," expands Reverend Kowta,"the Japanese people have been very inquisitive about it. 'Where does the government want us to go?' 'When does the government want us to move?' How does the government move us there?' 'How will the government treat us there?'

   Reverend Kowta invoked the lessons of hope and self-sacrificing love, telling his congregants to prepare themselves spiritually as well as materially for confinement, and that "every crisis is a testing time of one's character."

    "Fully equipped with these virtues, we shall have nothing to be afraid of.  Give us a desert; we shall make it a beautiful garden; give us a wasted land, we shall change it into a productive field; give us a wilderness, we shall convert it into a fruitful orchard," continued Reverend Kowta.  "Provide for our children competent teachers; regardless of the buildings we shall have, we shall make ours one of the finest schools in the country."

RIGHT: Rev. Kowta was the guest speaker at a meeting of Presbyterian clergy in Westminster in late April, 1942.  Westminster clergy had helped with the founding and development of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission in 1904 and asked Rev. Kowta to speak regarding the Japanese American community's departure for incarceration.  At the time of this article, Rev. Kowta indicates they do not know where they will be confined.  His reported comments are similar to the sermon in The Sunday Before.  (Santa Ana Register, April 21, 1942) 

   "In this critical hour, the spiritual anguish of the Japanese people is undescribable, their mental perplexity unsoluable, their economic loss inestimable.  The mighty economic structure which the Issei have constructed with their sweat and blood during these past several decades is fast crumbling down to its foundation," Reverend Kowta acknowledged the loss.  "We shall not foolishly look back, and weep and mourn, and turn ourselves into pillars of salt...but, with faith, hope and love, we shall go wherever God wants us to go." 

LEFT: Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, Arizona, at the time the Kowta family arrived.  Most of the families from the Wintersburg and Huntington Beach area were in Camp 1.  The Sohei and Furuta families were in Block 12 of Camp 1. (Photo, Fred Clark, May 25, 1942)

    "I remember the dust storms and the deep dry powdery dirt in which our feet sank when we walked," recalls Tadashi Kowta, of the Colorado River Relocation Center.  He covered up the knot holes that let wind and sand into their barrack with the ends of tin cans.   

   He remembers his father obtaining a large tank in which to grow carp, providing the blood to his mother, Riyo, as a means of strengthening her health.  The majority of those at Poston and other confinement camps began producing food as soon as they were able, to supplement the poor food provided by the government.

  Tadashi Kowta participated "in the  youth worship services and attending the adult services, I believe, in the auditorium. We watched the movies outdoor and we took a charcoal heater to keep us warm. I was in the Boy Scouts and was the flag bearer, since I was the only one with a full uniform.  I swam backstroke in the 'canal' and placed in the swim meet.

RIGHT: Tadashi Kowta talks to members of the Little Tokyo Historical Society about living in the 1910 manse (parsonage) next to the Wintersburg Japanese Mission at Historic Wintersburg. The Kowta family lived in the manse from 1938 to 1942.  Reverend Sohei Kowta was interrogated by the FBI in the Church office in 1942 and allowed to remain with his congregation until they all departed for confinement in Arizona. (Photo, M. Urashima, April 8, 2017) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

   Reverend Kowta, who had attended a theological seminary in Dayton, Ohio, began to help organize the various denominations of clergy into interfaith support for the displaced community, serving on Poston's interfaith councilThe Sunday Before publication notes remarkably positive correspondence from Reverend Kowta about his work in the trying circumstances of confinement.

  "From the camp he writes: 'It is a real joy for me to be on the job day and night. Very fortunately, the American officials are very thoughtful and understanding. We get along splendidly.'"

   In turn, the  federal government's November, 1945, Final Report for the Colorado River Relocation Center Community Activities Section notes,"The maintaining of a united church was made possible by a very tactful moderator, Reverend Sohei Kowta, of the Presbyterian Church..."

The return
   By 1945, the Kowtas left Poston and returned to the Little Tokyo district in Los Angeles, to assist at the Japanese Union Church.  Once again, Reverend Kowta was a leader in an interfaith and multicultural outreach effort in what had become Bronzeville.

LEFT: Little Tokyo, downtown Los Angeles, in 1947. (Photo, Wiki Commons)

   "Bronzeville in downtown Los Angeles existed for about three short years in the 1940s," summarizes the history website  "The area known as Little Tokyo transformed into the African American enclave of Bronzeville during World War II after Japanese Americans were evicted from their West Coast homes and placed into United States confinement camps."

   "As World War II progressed, Los Angeles faced a labor shortage in the war industries, and a huge migration of African Americans, mainly from the Deep South, started to flood the Southland to seek employment. Thousands ended up in the vacant Little Tokyo buildings because most of Los Angeles had restrictive housing covenants that barred people of color from living in white neighborhoods."

  During the war years, the Pilgrim House for the African American migrant community set up space in the Japanese Union Church building, which also housed belongings of the Japanese Americans in confinement.  In 1945, as Japanese Americans began to return, the Pilgrim House established the Common Ground Committee "to help promote a favorable atmosphere for returning Japanese Americans and to foster positive racial interaction among the African Americans, Japanese Americans and Latino Americans in the area."

    The Pilgrim House and the Japanese Union Church began sharing space.  Reverend Sohei Kowta worked to bring people in trying circumstances together, serving on the Pilgrim House board.  During the following years through 1950, the Pilgrim House eventually returned the space to the Japanese Union Church.

LEFT: The original Japanese Union Church building in Little Tokyo. It remains standing in Little Tokyo, off Judge John Aiso Street.  Today, it is the home of the East West Players, a nationally recognized Asian American theater organization, (Photo, National Park Service) 

   The National Park Service notes Reverend Kowta's efforts to help Japanese Americans returning from confinement in Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California.  "Rev. Sohei Kowta...recognized the need to establish a center to aid Japanese Americans returning from the concentration camps. Along with the Presbytery and the American Friends Service Committee, he established a resettlement center... known as the Evergreen Hostel, and Rev. Kowta conducted religious services for Union Church members and other residents."

   Tadashi Kowta thrived upon the return to California.  He attended Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, participating in basketball, track, was elected class officer and maintained perfect attendance.  From there, he attended Occidental College, Los Angeles City College, and graduated from California State University Los Angeles.  By 1953, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in military intelligence in Japan.  On his return, he graduated from the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California and began working for the Veterans Administration.

RIGHT: Tadashi Kowta in front of the Furuta barn at Historic Wintersburg in April 2017.  The Wintersburg Japanese Mission was provided land on the Furuta farm, which is home to six Japanese American pioneer structures.  Historic Wintersburg remains an endangered historic place and was designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2015. (Photo, M. Urashima, April 8, 2017) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

    Reverend Kowta continued his work and association with the Union Church until his passing in 1963.  The example of selfless community service he demonstrated in Wintersburg, Poston, and Little Tokyo has continued.  Tadashi Kowta was ordained an elder in 1962, served as chair of Social Justice, Superintendent of Sunday School, 27 years as Clerk, as a moderator for national conferences, and still serves as a volunteer member of the Little Tokyo Historical Society.

   Today, the children of Reverend Sohei Kowta and Riyo Kowta--who lived to the age of 103-- remain in California.  Tadashi, 87, in Los Angeles County, Hiroko, 83, and Makoto, 85, in northern California.   

ABOVE: Tadashi Kowta and his bride, Atsuko Yamaguchi, at their Union Church wedding in 1957.   The ceremony was officiated by Tadashi's father, Reverend Sohei Kowta.  (Photo courtesy of Tadashi Kowta) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

WITH GRATITUDE: Special thanks to the Kowta family for sharing their memories and adding to our understanding of life in Historic Wintersburg.

*February 19, 2017, is the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which prescribed areas along the West coast as military exclusion zones and directed the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans. 

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The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.