Masuo Yasui


Name Masuo Yasui
Born November 1 1886
Died May 11 1957
Birth Location Nanukaichi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
Generational Identifier

Issei

First-generation Japanese American (Issei) merchant, landowner, farmer, and prominent community leader in Hood River, Oregon, who was imprisoned at Justice Department detention camps for four years during and after World War II.

Issei Entrepreneur

Masuo Yasui, the third and youngest son of Shinataro and Tsuya Yasui, grew up in Nanukaichi, Japan, in Okayama prefecture, where he was born on November 1, 1886. At age sixteen, Masuo followed his father and brothers' example by traveling to the Western States to work among some 13,000 Japanese laborers.[1] Their goals were to work diligently, live frugally, and save their earnings so they could return home to pay off debts, purchase land, or begin business ventures. After debarking in Seattle, Washington, on June 4, 1903, Masuo joined his oldest brother Taiitsuro in Glen, Montana, as a railroad crew section hand on the Oregon Short Line, part of Union Pacific Railroad.[2]

After two years, Yasui sought new opportunities in Portland, Oregon. Living first at the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church's dormitory then with a white family as their houseboy, he converted to Christianity and attended evening English classes. Intelligent and studious, it is said that he became fluent in two years.[3]

It was likely in 1907 when Yasui envisioned prospects in the Columbia River Gorge that matched his ambitions. Several hundred Issei were working in logging camps, sawmills, and orchards in the Hood River valley north of Mt. Hood. Yasui met them when he solicited donations for an Issei float at Portland's Rose Festival parade. A year later—five years after his first train trip through the Gorge—Masuo and brother Renichi Fujimoto[4] opened Yasui Brothers' Store in downtown Hood River, which became a supply depot and social center for Issei.[5]

Hood River's international reputation for prize-winning apples and the ensuing zeal of young, inexperienced landowners brought other opportunities for Masuo Yasui. When aspiring gentleman orchardists sought cheap Issei labor to clear their tree-studded property, Yasui's English language facility made him a valuable go-between with Issei. He served as a labor contractor as well as a life insurance agent and interpreter for medical issues. With undeveloped land selling for as low as fifty dollars an acre, Yasui purchased 320 acres that he sold in plots to Issei laborers, and he became a real estate go-between when whites sold land to Issei.[6]

Committed to settling in Hood River, Yasui had corresponded with high school teacher Shidzuyo Miyake, raised in his village, and married her on November 4, 1912, in Tacoma, Washington. They would have nine children, seven who lived to adulthood. Meanwhile, Yasui was cementing his reputation as an Issei community leader and intermediary with whites. He helped Issei negotiate legal paperwork, served as financial liaison with the bank, and co-founded a Japanese Welfare Society. In 1916, while owning or holding an interest in five ranches, he helped form the Japanese Farmers Association of Hood River to market their burgeoning strawberry crops, then later the Mid-Columbia Vegetable Growers Association for marketing asparagus. A family history states that Yasui held a share in one-tenth of the apples and pears grown in Hood River Valley. When the local Anti-Asiatic Association formed in 1919 to counter competition by the "Yellow Invasion," Yasui, as Issei spokesman, offered counter-proposals that would actually deter Issei immigration and land purchases, but the association opposed any compromise.[7]

In the Nikkei community, Yasui provided property and funds toward building a Japanese Community Hall in 1926, which became a hub for cultural celebrations and language classes. Amidst the broader community, Yasui became the first Japanese elected as a director of the Apple Growers Association in 1931, and he joined the Rotary Club and local and state chambers of commerce.[8]

WWII Internment

When Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 plunged the United States into World War II, ensuing fears and suspicions fueled rumors about clandestine activities of local Japanese. Treasury agents froze Issei bank accounts and closed the Yasui Brothers' Store. Five days later the FBI arrested Yasui, a thirty-three year resident of the Hood River community. After holding him without charges at Portland's Multnomah County Jail, they transferred him to Fort Missoula, Montana, a detention camp primarily for Japanese and Italian aliens. At his February 1942 hearing, Yasui was deemed "potentially dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States," based on such evidence as his 1940 Wooden Cup award from the Japanese government, a 1935 award from the Japanese industrial Society for improving U.S.-Japan relations, and a map of the Panama Canal drawn by one of his children for schoolwork.[9]

Now branded an "alien enemy," Yasui was imprisoned at internment camps in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, and Camp Livingston, Louisiana. Despite attempts by son Minoru (by then a law school graduate) to gain a new hearing, the Department of Justice denied Yasui's application on May 26, 1943. Transferred to an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he and 500 other Issei joined 1,500 German and Italian prisoners of war.[10]

Yasui remained imprisoned for four years. Though the Department of Justice finally granted a rehearing on July 3, 1944, and the hearings board recommended parole (based on his "good record" and satisfactory explanations of community activities), the government determined on January 29, 1945 that there would be "no change" in Yasui's internment status. The local hearings board, influenced by statements from the Hood River American Legion, had strongly opposed Yasui's release. Thus, Yasui remained imprisoned until January 2, 1946, four and a half months after the war's end. At sixty-one, Yasui finally joined wife Shidzuyo in Denver, Colorado, where she resided after her incarceration at Tule Lake concentration camp in California and her work release in Montana.[11]

After the War

By war's end, the ambitious Yasui children had scattered across the country. Min, imprisoned after challenging the constitutionality of the wartime curfew, was appealing the Colorado bar so that he could practice law. Michi and Yuka were attending colleges in Denver and Oregon. Roku was a language specialist with the occupation army in Japan. Homer and Shu (Robert) attended medical school in Philadelphia. And Ray ("Chop") was farming the one remaining Yasui property in Hood River, after other acreage had been sold.[12]

For Masuo Yasui, Hood River could no longer be home. Now nationally tainted for its anti-Japanese intolerance, full-page local newspaper ads announced that Nikkei were not welcome to return. The American Legion had brought shame to the valley when it removed Nisei soldiers' names from the downtown honor roll of GIs. And now Yasui's long-time friends and associates had turned against him, suspicious that he was a traitor and enemy agent justifiably imprisoned by the government. Broken in spirit, Masuo and Shidzuyo Yasui bought a small house in southeast Portland.[13]

Still a public figure, Yasui aided Nikkei with legal and financial matters. After advocating for the McCarran-Walter Act, passed in 1952, he taught weekly classes to help Issei become naturalized citizens. At sixty-six, he and Shidzuyo both took their oaths of citizenship.[14]

Yasui's wartime treatment and imprisonment had serious consequences, however. Becoming forgetful and imagining that the FBI was still spying on him, he relived his post-Pearl Harbor days, compounded by anxieties with his role as bookkeeper for his church. Gradually confined at home, seventy-year old Yasui took his life on May 11, 1957. He was buried at Idlewilde Cemetery in Hood River. In Portland's Oregon Historical Society Museum, a remembrance of Masuo Yasui's impact is still visible. The Yasui Brothers' Store, closed in 1941, has been recreated, including authentic goods hastily stowed during the war. The exhibit was dedicated in 2004, integral to the permanent "Oregon My Oregon" exhibit.[15] A replica of the Yasui Brothers' Store can also be seen at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama, Japan.

Authored by Linda Tamura

For More Information

Ito, Kazuo. Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America. Translated by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard. Seattle: Executive Committee for Publication of Issei, 1973.

Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Kessler, Lauren. Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family. New York: Random House, 1993.

Niiya, Brian, ed. Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. New York: Facts-on-File, 1993.

Tamura, Linda. The Hood River Issei: An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon's Hood River Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Yasui, Barbara. "The Nikkei in Oregon, 1834-1940." Oregon Historical Quarterly 76 (September 1975): 225-57.

Yasui, Dr. Robert S. The Yasui Family of Hood River, Oregon. Desktop Publishing: Holly Yasui, 1987.

Footnotes

  1. Shinataro and second oldest son Renichi had returned to Japan in December 1902, by the time Masuo arrived in the United States. Ship Manifest, SS Duke of Life, Homer Yasui files; Dr. Robert S. Yasui, The Yasui Family of Hood River, Oregon (Desktop Publishing: Holly Yasui, 1987), 3; Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family (New York: Random House, 1993), 8-11.
  2. Masuo Yasui's diary confirms that he worked as a section hand in Montana and Oregon for two years and that all Issei laborers took turns cooking for their crews. This differs with other accounts of his life. Masuo Yasui diary (from May 12, 1903), Homer Yasui files; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 14-16; R. Yasui, The Yasui Family, 3-4.
  3. Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 18-19; R. Yasui, The Yasui Family, 4-5; Annual Report, Pacific Japanese Mission, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1905, Homer Yasui files.
  4. Renichi Yasui, one of Masuo Yasui's two older brothers, was adopted by his aunt, Haru Yasui Fujimoto, and her husband Chojiro when he was five years old. He then became known as Renichi Fujimoto. Homer Yasui, e-mail, April 2, 2015.
  5. Barbara Yasui, "The Nikkei in Oregon, 1834-1940," Oregon Historical Quarterly 76 (September 1975), 241; Masuo Yasui diary, Homer Yasui files and e-mail, April 6, 2015; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 20-21, 29, 142a, photo caption; R. Yasui, The Yasui Family, 6-7; Maija Yasui, "Brothers' Store Rich Cultural Center," Hood River News, April 17, 1991, 17.
  6. Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 24-25, 27-28, 31-32, 55-56; Kazuo Ito, Issei: A History of Japanese immigrants in North America, translated by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard (Seattle: Executive Committee for Publication of Issei, 1973), 132.
  7. Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 40, 52-53, 58-59, 76-77, 91, 105; Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 9, 11; Barbara Yasui, "The Nikkei in Oregon," 243-44; Linda Tamura, The Hood River Issei: An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon's Hood River Valley (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 90.
  8. Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 10-11; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 95, 104-05; Tamura, The Hood River Issei, 86; David J. Burkhart, with Ruth Guppy, It All Began with Apple Seeds: Growing Fruit in the Hood River Valley, 1880-1980 (Bend, Ore.: Maverick, 2007), 38.
  9. Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 10, 13; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 96, 108-17; Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 60-61, 109; Masuo Yasui's FBI & INS dossier, Homer Yasui files and e-mail, April 6, 2015.
  10. Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 15; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 116-17, 120-21.
  11. Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 17, 38; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 124-26.
  12. Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 127; Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 63.
  13. Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 240-44, 255; Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 17-18.
  14. Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 18-19; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 256; Ito, Issei, 934.
  15. Robert Yasui, The Yasui Family, 19-20; Kessler, Stubborn Twig, 257-59; Kirby Neumann-Rea, "Storing History: Hood River's Yasui Bros. Store Helps Define Oregon," Hood River News, September 1, 2004, B1.