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 preventing the race 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. (Densho)
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Minoru Yasui, having been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves, reported for duty at Fort Vancouver, across the river from Portland, Oregon.
However, he was told he could not serve due to his ancestry. Rejected by the military, Yasui decided to open a law practice in Portland to help Japanese Americans with legal issues during the chaotic, uncertain situation in the wake of the declaration of war with Japan. Public hostility toward Japanese Americans was virulent, and the government froze their bank accounts, revoked business licenses, and imposed many special regulations and restrictions.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the military to designate military zones and impose regulations such as a curfew order and travel restriction on all persons of Japanese ancestry in preparation for excluding them from the West Coast. Min knew this to be unconstitutional and wanted to find a volunteer to deliberately violate the curfew order as a test case on behalf of all Japanese Americans. Unable to find anyone willing to take such a risk, Min decided to do it himself. He walked from his law office to the Portland Police headquarters, where he insisted upon getting arrested.
While awaiting his trial, Min Yasui, along with three thousand other Japanese Americans, was confined in the so-called Portland Assembly Center, a hastily retrofitted livestock barn, while the more permanent detention centers were being built.
During his trial at the District Court of Oregon in June 1942, the government established the facts of Min’s curfew violation, and he was questioned about his loyalty to the USA which he unequivocally and repeatedly proclaimed. The judge declared that he needed more time to review the evidence before making a decision. In September of 1942, Min and all other Portland area Japanese Americans were sent by military transport to Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho, surrounded by barbed wire fences, unfinished barracks, and harsh dusty conditions. After a couple of months in Minidoka, Min was taken back to Portland under armed guard to hear the judge’s decision. He was gratified that the judge found the curfew order to be unconstitutional, but aghast at the ruling that he was not a U.S. citizen due to his former job with the Japanese Consulate in Chicago. The judge sentenced Min to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Min instructed his lawyer to appeal his conviction.
Min spent the next nine months in solitary confinement at the Multnomah County Jail while he awaited his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1943 reversed the decision from the lower court on both counts. They ruled that Min Yasui was in fact a U.S. citizen, but that the curfew was constitutional, justified by “military necessity.” He was taken from solitary confinement in the Multnomah County Jail and sent back, under armed guard, to the Minidoka WRA concentration camp.
Though Min lost his legal case, he didn’t lose faith in the United States. He believed it was not a failing of the U.S. Constitution, but of institutions made up of people who did not uphold the principles of the Constitution.
In June 1944, Min received permanent leave from the Minidoka concentration camp. He moved to Denver, started a family, and served the community as a tireless defender of civil rights of all people. He founded and helped to develop many local and regional organizations committed to social justice.
In the 1970s and 80s, Min was a leader of the Japanese American redress campaign, a movement seeking a government apology and reparations for the massive violation of their civil rights during World War II. He served as Chair of the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Redress Committee and the subsequent JACL Legislative Education Committee, which lobbied for redress legislation in Congress.
In 1983, he reopened his legal case under a writ of coram nobis. In 1984, the U.S. District Court of Oregon dismissed his wartime conviction, but the judge refused to consider evidence that indicated that the decision was based on discrimination because exculpatory government reports had been suppressed or altered during the original trail. He appealed again, “I don’t know if we’re going to win, but we’re going to give them hell,” he told his attorney, Peggy Nagae.
Min Yasui died on November 12, 1986 in Denver, Colorado. His family appealed his case to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it since the plaintiff was deceased. Still, Min’s legacy continues. Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, finally granting redress to every person of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II.
On November 24, 2015, President Obama awarded Min a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom noting, “Min never stopped believing in the promise of his country. Today Min’s legacy has never been more important. A reminder of our enduring obligation to be the home of the brave and the land of the free.”
Minoru Yasui on the duty of citizens to protest government actions that run counter to the democratic principles upon which our country was founded:
“This is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, founded in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And this [exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast] was happening in our country. As an American citizen, as a lawyer, I felt that we owed at least the obligation as a citizen to tell our government they are wrong! That is the sacred duty of every citizen, because what is done to the least of us can be done to all of us. I KNEW that we had to protest this!”