Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Minori Yasui

While the basic story of Japanese internment is pretty well-known to many Americans at this point, the details remain hazy. Perhaps the best exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History concerns internment and it is increasingly taught in schools. Even in the 1980s, I was taught about this tragedy in my Oregon school, something no doubt helped by a fairly sizable Japanese population ready to come speak about these things.

But internment is only a small, if extraordinarily important, part of the story of Japanese-Americans. Beginning in the 1880s, Japanese began flooding to the United States. Of course, this date is no coincidence. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a key strike in the West Coast’s long history of promoting themselves as white country. But western business interests opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act as they lost their supply of cheap labor. So beginning in 1882, they began recruiting in Japan for a new labor supply. The high point of this migration occurred between 1901 and 1907, when almost 110,000 Japanese ventured to the United States to make their fortune and help support their families back home.

<>Part of this group was Masuo Yasui, a young Japanese man following other family members to the United States. In 1908, after four years of working around the Pacific Northwest, Masuo found his way to the small town of Hood River, Oregon, about 60 miles east of Portland. Hood River was a town of about 700 in 1900 but it was growing, particularly because of the excellent fruit orchards reaching toward Mt. Hood from the town.

Masuo Yasui became a leader of the Japanese community in Hood River, serving as a cultural broker between the mostly poor migrants who came to work in the fruit orchards and the whites who didn’t understand these strange new immigrants but needed their labor. He ran a successful store and thought he was accepted by the white community. They came to him at the slightest problem with a member of the Japanese community and he served in many volunteer positions in the town. By 1941, Masuo owned, co-owned, or had interest in close to one thousand acres of orchard land in the valley and was a respected local leader.

He also had a large family. Among Masuo Yasui’s children was Minoru Yasui. Min was determined to take advantage of what the United States offered its brightest and most hard-working people. In 1933, he left Hood River for Eugene where he enrolled at the University of Oregon, one of only 6 nisei among the student body of 6000. He was only 16 at the time and he excelled in Eugene. In 1937, he became only the second Nisei to enroll at the University of Oregon’s law school. There he fought against racism among the faculty to get his degree and pass the bar.

<>On December 7, 1941, Masuo Yasui thought he was a respected citizen of Hood River and Min was working for the Japanese Consulate in Chicago. Within a few days, Masuo Yasui had been taken away by the FBI and sent to its special camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico for people it thought particularly risky. Since Masuo had a lot of money, he was suspected of being a spy. Like the rest of the Japanese-Americans, Masuo and his large family were taken away to concentration camps, despite the fact that the United States had not one shred of evidence that any Japanese living on the West Coast were spies for the Japanese government and despite the fact that Germans and Italians living in the United States received almost no official harassment. Masuo lost his business empire; while he had a few long-standing allies in Hood River, most locals wanted to take the land of someone they ultimately thought didn’t deserve land and prosperity over whites.

Like the rest of the Japanese, Min Yasui was covered by Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. Executive Order 9066 empowered the Secretary of War to designate sensitive “military areas” in four western states, including Oregon, and remove and exclude “any and all” Japanese persons from them.

Min could have surrendered. But he was the only practicing Japanese-American attorney in the state of Oregon and he felt he must stand up for his people. So he refused. Min told friends, “It is my belief that no military authority has the right to subject any United States citizen to any requirement that does not equally apply to all other U.S. citizens. If the government curtails the rights of any person, the damage is done not only to that individual but to the whole social structure.”

On March 28, 1942, Yasui told his secretary that he was walking up and down the streets, violating the curfew enforced on the Japanese and that the FBI should pick him up. He was arrested and then upon his release violated every restriction against his people that he could. On June 12, 1942, Minori Yasui went to court. The federal government saw his case as a way to validate its policies toward the Japanese. He was found guilty because the judge declared him not a citizen and sentenced to a year in prison. This despite the fact that he was born in the United States. He then spent 9 months in solitary confinement before being sent to the Minidoka camp in Idaho. Yasui appealed to the Supreme Court. Like the more famous Fred Korematsu, he lost his case. He didn’t spend a real long time at Minidoka. He was given an early release and settled in Denver.

Min Yasui could have stopped his fight there. But outraged at the treatment of his people, he spent the rest of his life lobbying for an official apology from the United States government to the Japanese-Americans. Much of his family returned to Oregon, where the American Legion and other racist elements tried to force the Japanese out. But Min stayed in Denver, becoming a leader of the Japanese-American community there. He spent many years working for the Japanese American Citizenship League (JACL) but worked to overturn the 1943 Supreme Court decision denying him his freedom. On January 16, 1984, the case of United States v. Minoru Yasui reopened in Portland. He told Judge Robert C. Belloni, “It is true that I am but an insignificant individual. But this case does not involve just me as a person, nor does it involve just Japanese Americans. It involves Americans, all Americans, who believe in the dream of equality and freedom and justice.” While Belloni vacated Min’s conviction, he refused to consider allegations of government misconduct. Soon after this, Minoru Yasui died of cancer at the age of 70. He did not live long enough to see Ronald Reagan sign into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which called for the government to issue individual apologies for all violation of civil liberties and constitutional rights, and providing $20,000 to each survivor of the concentration camps. Typically, Reagan refused to condemn the actions of the government during the war.

As for Masuo Yasui, he never recovered from the humiliation he received during the war. His land and investments were gone. By the 1950s, he became increasingly despondent and on May 11, 1957 committed suicide in the basement of his home. For this traditional Japanese man, taking his own life vindicated his shame. Chalk another death up to the policies of the United States government.

While Masuo Yasui is an excellent example of what happened to the Japanese of the United States after 1941, Minoru Yasui is a true American hero. He stood up for what was right, not just for his people but for the principles of all Americans. He believed in freedom and justice at a time, when like so often in American history, the government paid only lip service to these principles.

For further reading, see Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family, a book I was fortunate enough to review recently for Journal of the West.