Minoru Yasui


Name Minoru "Min" Yasui
Born October 19 1916
Died November 12 1986
Birth Location Hood River, OR
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Minoru "Min" Yasui (1916–86) was one of four Japanese Americans who fought the legality of exclusion and/or detention during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court. After the war, the Oregon-born attorney settled in Denver and had a long and distinguished career with the city's Community Relations Commission. He was famously credited with avoiding the racial riots that ignited in other major U.S. cities after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King because he had built strong relationships with the city's African American community.

Contents

Before the War

Minoru Yasui was born and raised in Hood River, Oregon, to immigrant parents who were fruit farmers. He had eight brothers and sisters, and was his high school salutatorian in 1933. Yasui attended the University of Oregon for his bachelor's degree and went on to earn his law degree there in 1939, becoming the first Japanese American to graduate from Oregon's law school. But as a Nisei, he was unable to find work as a lawyer, so he took a position at the Japanese Consulate General of Chicago as a speechwriter and managing correspondence in English.[1]

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Yasui quit his consular job immediately and returned to Oregon. There, he volunteered for active army duty because he'd been an ROTC cadet in college and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves after he graduated. He was initially ordered to report at Fort Vancouver in Washington but when he arrived for duty he was turned away on account of his Japanese ancestry; nine subsequent attempts to enlist yielded the same result. Also in the days immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, Yasui's father was arrested as a potential threat and sent to a series of army and Justice Department administered internment camps until the end of the war.[2]

Wartime Years

When he returned to Portland after being turned away from Fort Vancouver, Yasui opened a law practice dedicated to helping the Japanese community's legal needs. He was the only attorney of Japanese heritage in the state, so he was kept busy.[3]

After President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Yasui became more and more outraged at the injustice facing the Japanese community, especially the U.S.-born citizens, the Nisei, whose American rights were being trampled. When travel restrictions and curfews were established against Japanese Americans, he decided to make himself a legal test case.

On March 28, 1942, Yasui walked through downtown Portland after 8 pm, deliberately breaking the curfew. When no one noticed his lawbreaking, he approached a policeman and demanded to be arrested. He was only told to go home. So he marched into the police station and demanded to be arrested, where the officer on duty obliged.[4]

Yasui was ultimately convicted in his challenge of the curfew and lost his appeal in front of the Supreme Court. He spent nine months in solitary confinement before being sent to the Minidoka concentration camp. He was allowed to leave in 1944 for a job in Chicago, as a laborer in an ice plant. By September of that year, he had moved to Denver.

Denver Career and Legacy

Yasui's lasting legacy nationally is as one of the Japanese Americans who objected publicly to exclusion during World War II, and took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. But in Denver, he's remembered for his long career as a civil rights advocate and a leader within city government.

He took the Colorado bar exam in 1945 and had the highest scores of all the candidates. However, he was denied admission to the state's bar because of his wartime criminal record. He appealed to the state supreme court and won that case; he was admitted to the Colorado bar in January of 1946. That same year be married True Shibata, who had been incarcerated at Camp Amache in southeast Colorado. The couple had three daughters.

Yasui opened a law practice in the heart of Denver's postwar Japantown, where he would accept barter for legal work. In one instance, he received a live turkey to be eaten one Thanksgiving, but his wife didn't have the heart to butcher the bird and they gave it away.[5]

He remained active in Japanese American organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese Association of Colorado. He lobbied for the Evacuation Claims Act in the 1948 Congress, and from 1976 to 1984 served on the JACL's National Committee for Redress. He also lobbied against a more restrictive alien land law introduced in the Oregon State Legislature in 1945.

He also fought discrimination beyond the Japanese community. He was a founding member of the Urban League of Denver, an African American organization, in 1946, and helped found the Latin American Research and Service Agency (an Hispanic civil rights organization) and Denver Native Americans United.[6]

Because of his cross-cultural advocacy, Yasui was appointed to Denver's Community Relations Commission (later renamed Denver's Human Rights Commission) in 1959 and was made executive director of the commission in 1967. Because he had such strong relationships with other minority groups, he was credited with preventing race riots during the turbulent civil rights era of the late '60s. Yasui reached out to Denver's Black community with diplomacy and Denver avoided the violence that erupted in other major cities.[7]

Yasui continued to fight his wartime arrest record until his death. In 1983 he filed a motion requesting the court to reverse his conviction, dismiss his indictment, agree there had been governmental misconduct and find that the proclamation that he had been convicted under for breaking curfew was unconstitutional. The district court vacated his conviction but didn't agree to his other claims. He died on Nov. 12 1986, while waiting to be heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the case after his death. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appeals Court's decision and Yasui's case was closed.[8]

Yasui is remembered today with a bust at Sakura Square, the center of what used to be the Japantown District, and a monthly award from the Denver Foundation that he established to promote civic and non-profit community engagement. The award now carries his name: The Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award. A building owned by the City and County of Denver in downtown Denver is now called Minoru Yasui Plaza, and although a plaque already explains Yasui's contributions to the city, efforts are underway to fund a memorial in the lobby.

Authored by Gil Asakawa

For More Information

Hosokawa, Bill. Colorado's Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Hada, Kerry S. and Andrew S. Hamano. "Five of the Best: A Tribute to Outstanding Lawyers in Colorado History." The Colorado Lawyer (July 1998).

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

Footnotes

  1. Harry S. Hada, and Andrew S. Hamano, "Five of the Best: A Tribute to Outstanding Lawyers in Colorado History," The Colorado Lawyer (July 1998).
  2. "Minoru Yasui," Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, ed. Brian Niiya (New York: Facts on File, 2001): 423.
  3. Hada and Hamano, "Five of the Best."
  4. "Minoru Yasui," Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, 423.
  5. Hada and Hamano, "Five of the Best."
  6. Hada and Hamano, "Five of the Best."
  7. Bill Hosokawa, Colorado's Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present(Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005), 11.
  8. Hada and Hamano, "Five of the Best."