Honored American

By Mark Baker | Living Here | |

In her 1993 book, “Stubborn Twig,” University of Oregon journalism professor Lauren Kessler describes what life was like for Minoru Yasui after he was taken to the Multnomah County Jail from the county courthouse in November 1942.

“For the next month and a half, Min was kept in the cell 24 hours a day, with no exercise periods and no trips to the showers or the barber. He tried to wash himself in the washbasin with rags, but after six weeks of this, he was ‘stinking dirty.’

“His hair grew shaggy, unkempt and tangled. His nails grew so long that they curled inward.”

Yasui, called “Min” by those who knew him best, actually spent nine months in solitary confinement for his defiance of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during World War II.

Now, 29 years to the month after his 1986 death, Yasui will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top civilian award, from President Obama during a White House ceremony on Tuesday.

Yasui is among 17 Americans, three of them deceased, who will receive the award. The medal is bestowed “to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant or private endeavors.”

Tuesday’s list contains famous names such as film director Steven Spielberg, baseball greats Yogi Berra and Willie Mays, the violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, singer and actress Barbra Streisand and recording artist James Taylor.

Yasui’s nomination was submitted by Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who was born in Japan and is the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate.

In January, Hirono was joined by seven other members of the U.S. Senate, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who co-wrote a letter to Obama urging him to honor Yasui, “a trailblazer and lifetime defender of civil and human rights.”

Education interrupted

Yasui, who grew up in Hood River and received his undergraduate degree from the UO in 1937, was the first Japanese-American to graduate from the UO School of Law in 1939.

Yasui was one of nine children — four of whom would attend the UO — born to Japanese immigrants Masuo and Shidzuyo Yasui, according to a family history in the UO Special Collections & University Archives.

Masuo Yasui came to the United States at age 16 in 1903. He and a brother opened a store in Hood River in 1905.

Masuo Yasui later ran a successful fruit orcharding business there until the government seized his land during the war and imprisoned him as an “enemy alien” at a Sante Fe, N.M., internment camp.

Minoru Yasui’s younger sister, Michi, completed her senior year at the UO in 1942 but was unable to participate in graduation ceremonies because it would have violated the wartime 8 p.m. curfew rule.

She returned 44 years later, in 1986, and was honored at that year’s graduation at Hayward Field, a ceremony her brother attended just five months before his death.

The youngest of Minoru Yasui’s three daughters, Holly Yasui, 61, who lives in Mexico, said she will accept the medal Tuesday on her father’s behalf.

“My sisters and I are deeply honored that our father has been awarded the Medal of Freedom for his profound commitment to the ideals of democracy and justice for all, and the legacy he has left to us,” Holly Yasui said in a press release.

She is making a documentary film, “Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice,” about her father’s life. Listed as co-director on the film’s website is Will Doolittle, owner of Moving Image Productions in Eugene.

Holly Yasui and other family members formed the Denver-based Minoru Yasui Tribute Project “to honor and reflect upon (his) contributions in making the world a better place.”

The project includes the film, development of a play called “Citizen Min,” school curricula and creation of an exhibit — all scheduled to culminate in 2016, the 100th anniversary of Minoru Yasui’s birth.

Yasui moved to Denver at the end of World War II and lived there until his death from cancer at age 70, on Nov. 12, 1986.

Yasui practiced law in Denver and became known as a man who fought to undo any sort of civil injustice. Yasui was executive director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations, where he established and oversaw hundreds of programs for ethnic and religious minorities, youth, seniors and low-income people, Holly Yasui says.

Yasui also was chairman of the Japanese American Citizens League’s National Committee for Redress. Beginning in the mid-1970s, it pushed the U.S. government to publicly admit wrongdoing and formally apologize for the wartime treatment of Japanese-Americans.

“Min Yasui was both a man of principle and a man of action, which is a too rare combination,” Kessler said in an email from Mexico, where she’s been leading a series of workshops. “He was impassioned, stubborn, generous, brave — and funny.

“I met him toward the end of his life, and I — like so many others — am better for it.

“The honor is so richly deserved.”

The battle begins

The key date in Minoru Yasui’s life was March 28, 1942. It came 111 days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Yasui spent hours on Portland’s streets that night, violating the first stipulation of Executive Order 9066, a curfew that forbid those of Japanese ancestry from being anywhere outside a five-mile radius of their homes at any time, or outside at all between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Then a 25-year-old attorney, he could not persuade the one officer he encountered to arrest him. Instead, he turned himself in at the Police Department and spent two nights in jail.

Yasui would be housed that summer of ’42 at the Portland Assembly Center, once a livestock pavilion, with 3,000 other Japanese-Americans, before being sent to an Idaho internment camp.

Yasui was returned to Portland in November, where a U.S. District Court judge ruled that his curfew violation was unconstitutional, according to his life history on the tribute project website.

But in a bizarre twist, the judge ruled that since Yasui had worked for the Japanese Consulate in Chicago in 1940-41, he had effectively renounced his U.S. citizenship and thus disobeyed a lawful regulation governing enemy aliens.

Yasui was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $5,000.

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case and reversed the lower court on both counts. Justices said the curfew violation applied to U.S. citizens due to “wartime necessity” but that Yasui’s work for the Japanese Consulate did not abolish his U.S. citizenship.

Yasui would spend the rest of his life appealing the conviction. His case was reopened in U.S. District Court in Portland by attorney Peggy Nagae, a former assistant dean at the UO School of Law, through a procedure known as coram nobis, a Latin term meaning “error before us.”

It allows a case to be reopened if new evidence comes to light that could have affected the outcome had it been revealed, according to “Stubborn Twig,” which received the 1994 Oregon Book Award for nonfiction.

A posthumous victory

Researchers had discovered National Archives memos and letters from the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI and the Justice Department that were suppressed during the war.

That information said there was no evidence of “illicit signaling” or unlawful use of radio waves by any Japanese-American, Kessler wrote.

U.S. District Judge Robert Belloni vacated Yasui’s 1942 conviction but refused to consider allegations of government misconduct.

Yasui considered it a “hollow personal victory,” Kessler wrote. He appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it still resided when he died in 1986.

The court then moved to dismiss the appeal on the grounds that he was dead.

Nagae, through Yasui’s wife, True Yasui, pressed on, saying the case was about all Japanese-Americans who were forced to obey the government’s wartime policies. But the 9th Circuit dismissed the appeal in 1987.

Nagae filed a petition with the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.

“The irony of that has always stayed with me,” Holly Yasui says. “The high court had the opportunity to correct the… bad decisions of World War II, but did not.”

A year later, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized for the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans and paid each survivor about $20,000 for the injustice.

Email mark.baker@registerguard.com . You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG .