Minoru Yasui Day honors Oregon native who endured unjust imprisonment and fought on
By DOUGLAS PERRY | oregonlive.com | Published: March 26, 2021
PORTLAND, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Sunday is Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon.
Despite this annual honor, enacted by the Oregon Legislature five years ago, the late “Min” Yasui is not particularly well-known in his native state. But his impact has been widely felt.
President Barack Obama awarded Yasui a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, pointing out that “Min never stopped believing in the promise of his country” despite facing dire injustices. “He never stopped fighting for equality and justice for all.”
Minoru Yasui first came to public attention on March 28, 1942, when he decided to step out into the streets of Portland after dark.
With the United States newly at war with Japan, a curfew had been established for everyone of Japanese descent. From 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., Japanese “aliens” and Japanese-American citizens had to be in their residences. At all other hours, they could not be more than five miles from their homes.
Yasui, a 26-year-old University of Oregon law-school graduate, knew this new law was unconstitutional. He was determined to create a test case in court.
So he strolled the streets late on that Saturday night. A couple of beat cops spotted him but did nothing. Finally, just before midnight, Yasui barged into the downtown police headquarters waving his birth certificate, demanding that officers do their duty.
“Run along home, son, or you’re going to get into trouble,” an officer told him.
But Yasui refused to go home, and so he was arrested.
“It was not an intelligent thing to do,” he’d later say of his curfew challenge. “It was a matter of idealism.”
The consequences proved extreme. Yasui had his citizenship temporarily stripped from him, and he served nearly a year in solitary confinement at the Multnomah County Jail. (The jail cell that held him recently has been donated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon.) When Yasui finally was freed, he still wasn’t free. The military transported him to an Idaho concentration camp, where he joined thousands of other Americans imprisoned because of their Japanese ancestry.
He would spend the rest of his life fighting for civil rights for all Americans.
“We are born into this world for a purpose: to make it a better place for our having been there,” he would say.
Born in Hood River in 1916 to Japanese immigrants, Yasui earned bachelor’s and law degrees from UO. In 1939 he became possibly the first Japanese-American lawyer admitted to the Oregon bar.
Prejudice against Japanese-Americans didn’t suddenly appear in the U.S. with the advent of World War II. It had been around since the first Asian immigrants arrived in the country.
In Feb. 1940, nearly two years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Yasui made his case for acceptance in his community. The headline in The Oregonian: “We, Too, Please, Are 100 Per Cent Americans.”
“We ‘nisei’ are American citizens, and we think of ourselves only as Americans,” he felt compelled to state.
As an example of his Americanness, he said he had visited Japan for the first time only a few years earlier.
“It was all strange to me, and I must have seemed strange to the Japanese,” he said in the article. “Anyway, they thought I was Chinese.”
Two years later he was back in the local newspapers.
“Alien in Toils For ‘After Hours,’” The Oregonian titled its article this time. The Oregon Journal used a racial slur in its headline about the young lawyer testing the curfew law.
Yasui, as he had pointed out in the 1940 article, was not an alien, but most Americans now considered that hair-splitting. The Journal argued that Yasui had been “a paid agent of Japan until the day of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.”
The Journal was referring to a clerk position he’d held at Chicago’s Consulate General of Japan, after he’d found Portland-area legal jobs closed to him. Yasui resigned from the consulate the day after Pearl Harbor and reported for duty at the nearest Army induction center.
But even though Yasui was an Army Reserve officer in good standing (via the Reserve Officer Training Corps program in college) and the military was desperate for officers, he was turned away.
He reported again — and again and again — at various Army bases and offices between Chicago and Portland, and each time he was immediately rejected.
Back in Hood River, he discovered that the FBI had arrested his father, a fruit farmer, as an “enemy alien.” Locals were now boycotting the family’s long-standing business. The little town on the Columbia River, the journalist Alan K. Ota later wrote, “would earn a reputation among Japanese-Americans for one of the most virulent strains of ‘haiseki’ — hatred of Japanese — in the United States.”
Yasui set up a one-man law practice in Portland (in the lobby of a rundown building in “Japantown”), where he focused on helping fellow Japanese-Americans protect themselves and their property as anti-Japanese prejudice spiked in the region and increasingly was codified.
Then came Yasui’s arrest and subsequent conviction for flouting the military curfew. After his appeals failed (Oregon federal district court Judge James Alger Fee ruled that the Portland lawyer brought the test case “to embarrass the military authorities of the United States”), Yasui landed at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, one of 10 concentration camps housing tens of thousands of prisoners during World War II.
Japanese-Americans had started arriving at the isolated Idaho camp when only the barbed-wire fencing had been finished. They stepped onto the train platform, choking on dust, stunned by the nothingness rolling out before them.
“I know people who got off the train and cried,” Yasui said in 1985 when he returned to the Minidoka site. He remembered “row after row of tarpaper shacks.” Looking around at what was left 40 years later, he noted that government officials now said the internment policy had been wrong.
“Yes indeed it was wrong!” he bellowed.
He was still outraged, four decades later. He never would get over it. But he also was proud, he said, that the men, women and children imprisoned solely for their ancestry had not been broken by the experience.
“The resiliency of the people [held at Minidoka] could not be overcome by this harsh environment,” he declared.
After the war, Yasui moved to Denver, where he set up a law office that his daughter Holly would recall as “a proverbial hole-in-the-wall in the heart of downtown Denver’s Skid Row.” Early on, many of his clients were Japanese-Americans who had lost everything during their wartime imprisonment. One client gave him a live turkey as payment.
Yasui took on leadership positions with the Japanese American Citizens League and became a founding member of the Urban League of Denver. He later served as executive director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations. “Because he had such strong relationships with other minority groups,” writes the National Park Service-backed Densho Encyclopedia, “he was credited with preventing race riots [in Denver] during the turbulent civil-rights era of the late ’60s.”
“There are few great men in our country who are totally unselfish in their commitment to fairness and justice,” another Denver activist, Helen L. Peterson, would say after his death. “He was one.”
Yasui’s civil-rights work was an obsession that took up much of his time for decades, but Holly Yasui has called him “a great dad: loving, attentive and generous.” Min and his wife True raised three daughters. (Holly has admitted that during the Vietnam War she and her father disagreed about “draft dodgers.” He believed every American should serve when their government called on them; he had encouraged his fellow internees to volunteer or register for the draft when, late in World War II, the Army launched an all-Japanese unit, a test case of its own.)
Minoru Yasui never did put his World War II experiences behind him, because he didn’t want to.
“This shall never happen again,” he would declare time and again in speeches.
His advocacy helped lead to the 1988 bipartisan Civil Liberties Act, which provided $20,000 in reparations to surviving internees and declared that the wartime camps had been the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Yasui also spent years fighting to overturn his 1942 conviction after he discovered the government had invented evidence that called into question the loyalty of Japanese-Americans.
In 1984, two years before Yasui died at 70, the federal district court in Portland vacated his conviction.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon is co-sponsoring a Zoom event on Saturday to celebrate Minoru Yasui Day. The featured speaker will be U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. The event will include a short documentary about Yasui.
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