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Medal of Freedom for civil rights fighter Yasui offers lesson in tense times

UPDATE: President says Yasui's 'legacy has never been more important'


COURTESY OF THE YASUI FAMILY - A fiery orator, Minoru Yasui spent decades after his 1942 arrest and conviction for a curfew violation in Portland fighting for Japanese Americans' constitutional rights. Seven decades after he was convicted in Oregon’s federal court for (purposely) violating a military curfew imposed on West Coast Japanese Americans, Minoru Yasui of Hood River was honored Tuesday at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As the highest civilian honor, the medal focuses on Yasui’s contribution to the nation’s interests, security, peace and public endeavors. Before his death in November 1986, Minoru Yasui was a leader on civil rights issues in Oregon and Colorado, where he spent most of his adult life.

His efforts, and those of others who challenged similar wartime restrictions, paved the way for changes in civil rights laws and payment of reparations in the late 1980s to the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in 10 internment camps during WWII.

CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL 17 MEDAL OF FREEDOM HONOREES.

Even though he died during a final battle on his appeal, Yasui’s legal team uncovered and exposed documents from the early 1940s showing that Japanese Americans on the West Coast were not a threat to the nation’s wartime security. Federal Department of Justice officials withheld the documents and investigators’ reports from judges in Yasui’s case and in two other cases brought by Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, forcing the government decades later to apologize for prosecutors’ actions.

Laurie Yasui, one of his three daughters, accepted the award during a White House ceremony honoring 17 medal winners.

During Tuesday afternoon's ceremony, President Obama praised Minoru Yasui for his determination to fight for justice. He said Yasui’s “ordinary act” of defying a military curfew, began an extraordinary life of fighting for civil rights.

“Yet despite what Japanese Americans endured — suspicion, hostility, forced removal, internment — Min never stopped believing in the promise of his country,” Obama said. “He never stopped fighting for equality and justice for all. Today, Min’s legacy has never been more important. It is a call to our national conscience; a reminder of our enduring obligation to be ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ — an America worthy of his sacrifice.”

Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday that she was "incredibly proud that Minoru Yasui, a son of Hood River."

"He is an Oregon hero who had the courage to take a stand against discrimination," Brown said in a statement released after the White House ceremony. "Fighting for freedom cost him dearly, including a wrongful incarceration and a criminal record that followed him like a dark cloud throughout his career.

"It’s not lost on me that we still struggle with these issues. Oregon’s potential to thrive is compromised when any group of people face discrimination. We are stronger when everyone has the opportunity to succeed free from injustice. The best way to honor his courage is by showing our own in the face of new challenges to freedom and justice."

Frightening parallels to today

COURTESY OF OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - As a young lawyer in Portland, Minoru Yasui fought against a WWII curfew imposed on Japanese Americans.Minoru Yasui’s family and friends say his White House honor will be a good reminder that protecting civil rights is a constant and unending task. Tuesday’s Medal of Freedom ceremony comes at a time when they see frightening parallels in political rhetoric about Muslim refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war to similar messages about Japanese Americans during the 1940s.

“Sometimes when people step out from the group and actually step forward, it’s challenging,” says Peggy Nagae, a retired Northeast Portland attorney who represented Yasui when he reopened his federal court legal fight in the early 1980s. “Like right now, with what’s happening in this country about the Syrian refugees. It’s hard to step out and say, ‘This all feels like military necessity or national security. It feels like all these things, but I disagree.’ ”

Minoru Yasui's daughter Holly Yasui thinks that with anti-Muslim feelings intensified by the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, her father’s legacy could be a good example for people battling racial profiling and discrimination.

“In the past decade, I have signed on to several federal court amicus briefs on behalf of Muslim plaintiffs, reminding the court of the shameful violations of civil rights perpetrated against Japanese Americans, which should not be repeated against another scapegoated minority,” Holly Yasui says.

COURTESY OF THE YASUI FAMILY - Minoru Yasui's family was a centerpiece in the Hood River and Columbia River Gorge Japanese American community. Yasui is second from the left, holding the flag.

‘A huge patriot’

Tuesday’s honor is a far cry from the treatment a young Minoru Yasui received in 1942, when he was vilified as a “treacherous spy” and a disloyal citizen (even though he was an ROTC member in high school and an Army reservist) for standing up to what he believed was an unconstitutional order slapped on Japanese-Americans who posed no threat during the early days of America’s involvement in World War II.

It’s also just another chapter in Yasui’s long life of service. He didn’t take the controversial stand because he was disloyal to the United States, Yasui’s family and friends say. He stood up to the order because he was “a huge patriot.”

“He believed in the Constitution and he believed in due process,” Nagae says. “He was a huge patriot. So for him and his life to be recognized as an American hero, I think that would make him really happy. That’s actually why he did this test case in the first place, not to be an American hero, but to be an American patriot.”

“To me it means that a dream can be realized if you work hard, with others in your community, and don't give up,” says Holly Yasui, who lives in Central Mexico. “To those who knew Min Yasui, I think it means that justice is finally served. He touched many lives with his generosity, his integrity and passion.”

COURTESY OF THE OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - The Yasui Bros. variety store was the de facto center of Asian life in Hood River.

Trying to get arrested

Minoru Yasui seemed to be on vanguard of just about everything he did. When he was 15, Yasui founded the Mid-Columbia chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and was its president. He was salutatorian of his high school graduating class in 1933. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 1937 with honors. He also became the first Japanese American graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law in 1939, and the first Japanese American member of the Oregon State Bar.

His family was active in Hood River’s Japanese American community. A variety store operated by Minoru’s father and uncle was a centerpiece in the Columbia River Gorge Asian community.

When he couldn’t find work as a lawyer in Oregon, Yasui went to work at the Japanese consulate in Chicago. He resigned on Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and returned to Hood River.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, that excluded anyone the military and the federal government considered a threat to West Coast safety. In March 1942, a curfew was established requiring all Japanese Americans (and noncitizen Japanese) to be off West Coast city streets between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

COURTESY OF THE OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - An Oregon Historical Museum exhibit on life in Oregon includes a replica of the Yasui Bros. Hood River variety store.On March 28, 1942, Minoru Yasui asked his legal secretary to tell the FBI and Portland police that he intended to violate the curfew in hopes of being arrested. He walked Portland’s streets for hours after the 8 p.m. curfew, waiting for a police officer to take him into custody. He finally went to Portland police headquarters and demanded to be arrested.

Holly Yasui says her family learned the story with a humorous twist. Writing about her family life in the January 2014 Discover Nikkei online journal, Holly Yasui says her father “would animatedly recount how he marched into the police headquarters with the proclamation and his birth certificate in hand, insisting that it was the duty of the police to arrest him. We always laughed at the punch line, when the officer said, ‘Run along home, son, or you’re going to get into trouble.’ ”

A 1942 poster instructed Japanese Americans to prepare for internment camps.In the 1983 short film “Citizen Min,” Minoru Yasui told Salt Lake City journalist Michael Goldfein that he walked up and down Portland’s busy main streets “two, three or four times” trying to get arrested. After a police desk sergeant took him into custody, Yasui said he was put in the jail’s drunk tank for a couple of days.

The 26-year-old Yasui was convicted in a one-day trial in June 1942 and sentenced to a year in prison. While his conviction was appealed, Yasui was sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center, a 33,000-acre internment camp in south-central Idaho, about 21 miles southeast of Jerome. About 13,078 Japanese Americans lived in the camp during the duration of WWII.

Yasui called the camp “a desolate site.” Today, about 73 acres of the site have been preserved as a national monument.

He returned to Portland in November 1942, when the federal court ruled on his appeal, sending him to a year in solitary confinement at Multnomah County Jail, and requiring him to pay a $5,000 fine. In “Citizen Min,” Yasui described his small cell: “You had enough room to take two or three steps and turn around and take two or three steps back. The cockroaches; you’d chase them, swat them, talk to them.”

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction in a decision that focused primarily on Yasui's race and ancestry.

‘You bet I’d do it again’

After his release, Yasui returned to Minidoka. In 1944, he moved to Denver, where he spent the rest of his life working on civil rights issues, operating a one-man legal office in Denver’s Japantown (where he often bartered his services for goods) after passing the Colorado Bar Exam in 1945 with the highest score of that year’s candidates.

In 1946, he married True Shibata. They had three daughters.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Yasui was executive director of Denver’s Community Relations Commission (later changed to the Human Rights Commission). He helped found the Urban League of Denver in 1946 and worked to create Latino organizations, groups supporting Native American rights and was active in the anti-war movement during the 1960s and early 1970s.

He also was a Boy Scout leader.

COURTESY PHOTO - A bust of Minoru Yasui stands in Denver's Sakura Square. Yasui spent most of his adult life in Colorado.Today, a bust of Yasui stands in Denver’s Sakura Square, honoring his legacy.

His nomination for the Medal of Freedom honor gathered support from dozens of political and civic leaders, including all of Oregon’s congressional delegation and members of congress and senators from across the nation. Nagae’s 13-page nomination letter sent to the White House early this year, meticulously lays out Yasui’s dense history and his important role in a civil rights campaign for all Americans.

“He lived his life as a role model for justice and empathy,” Nagae says. “And for anyone I think he’s a great role model. There are so few Asian American and Japanese American roles models in Oregon, that I think this is important for the state of Oregon.”

Holly Yasui says her family is thrilled by the award because it “means that a dream can be realized if you work hard, with others in your community, and don't give up.”

“To those who knew Min Yasui, I think it means that justice is finally served,” Holly Yasui says. “He touched many lives with his generosity, his integrity and passion.”

Three years before his death, Minoru Yasui told journalist Goldfein that he didn’t regret a moment of his ordeal, even though the legal fight to restore his rights took decades.

“I don’t think my faith in America is diminished one whit,” Yasui told Goldfein. “I think my idealism a little tired, perhaps. But, if I were a youngster, 26 years old, you bet I’d do it again.”


Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email: kharden@portlandtribune.com
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Yasui family raises money for ‘Never Give Up’ documentary

COURTESY PHOTO - Holly Yasui is working on a documentary of her father's life and legacy.Minoru Yasui’s family hopes to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth in October 2016 with a documentary about his life and civil rights legal fight.

Holly Yasui, Minoru’s daughter, is trying to raise $50,000 to produce “Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice.” Japanese American actor George Takei has signed on to be the film’s narrator.

“He inspired people,” Takei says of Yasui in a short online film promoting the documentary. “He talked about the ideals of our system and how fragile it is.”

Takei says he was part of the documentary because he wanted to pay tribute “to this great man.” “And, I’m proud to say, he was a buddy of mine.”

Holly Yasui says that last year, the documentary project received a $14,000 grant from the Mile High Japanese American Citizens League, and another $10,000 was added for travel and other expenses. The family wants to raise at least $50,000 to make the documentary “a first-class film,” she says.

“I’ve always wanted to make a film about my dad,” she says in a press release about the documentary. “He was an extraordinary person who stood up to the greatest power in the world, the U.S. government, because he believed with all his heart and soul in the democratic ideals of liberty and justice for all.”

Yasui’s story has been told in pieces in other films, including the 1983 short by Salt Lake City journalist Michael Goldfein “Citizen Min”; the 1988 film “Family Gathering,” by Holly’s cousin Lise Yasui, which explored the lives of families Oregon Japanese immigrants and their internment during World War II; and the 1985 documentary “Unfinished Business,” by Steven Okazaki, which focused on legal cases brought by Minoru Yasui, Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi.

Last year, Holly Yasui and Will Doolittle interviewed nearly two dozen people in Oregon, California and Colorado for the film. During the editing process, they realized the documentary would run longer than 30 minutes, so they plan to push it to an hour-long film if they can raise $50,000.

For more information, or to donate to the film, go to www.minoruyasuifilm.org or to www.minoruyasuitribute.org/.

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