Notable Oregonians: Minoru Yasui - Civil Rights Leader
Minoru Yasui was born in Hood River, Oregon on October 19, 1916. He was the third son of nine children born to Japanese immigrants Masuo and Shidzuyo Yasui, successful fruit growers. Yasui lived in Japan for a summer when he was eight years old and later studied at an Oregon Japanese language school for three years. He graduated from Hood River High School in 1933 and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon four years later. Yasui was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army's Infantry Reserve in 1937 after completing a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at the university. Soon after graduating from law school at the University of Oregon in 1939, he was admitted to the Oregon Bar as the state's first Japanese American lawyer and briefly practiced law in Portland. However, poor job prospects in Oregon led him to accept a job in 1940 as a consular attaché for the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago, Illinois.
Yasui resigned his consular position the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and returned to Oregon. He tried to join the regular Army but, despite his commission in the reserve, was rejected--apparently because American soldiers could not be expected to follow a Japanese American command. Meanwhile, his father, a leader in the local Japanese American community, was arrested by FBI agents as a "potentially dangerous enemy alien" and imprisoned until 1946. Yasui opened a law office in Portland and spent three months helping other Japanese Americans file legal papers to prove their citizenship and protect their property.
Federal policies aimed at protecting the home front further targeted Oregon's Japanese American community in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, allowing the military to establish exclusion zones, curfews, and the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. Determined to test the legality of the order, Yasui walked the streets of Portland after curfew, demanding to be arrested. On March 28, 1942, he was charged with violating the order and stood trial in U.S. District Court in Portland in late 1942. The judge agreed with Yasui that the curfew had been illegally applied to citizens but then proceeded to strip him of his citizenship and sentence him to a year in the Multnomah County Jail. The next year, his case went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously reversed the judge's ruling that the curfew was unconstitutional and restored Yasui's citizenship. Upon release from jail in 1943, he was transferred to the internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho, where he stayed until 1944.
After the war, Yasui settled in Denver, Colorado where he practiced law, worked in community relations, and fought for civil rights. From 1976 to 1984, he served on a committee of the Japanese American Citizen's League exploring the subject of redress for internment during World War II. Yasui and others who had challenged internment reopened their cases in 1984 after learning that the government had introduced false evidence in related court cases. Two years later the Oregon district court overturned his conviction but did not rule on the constitutional issue. However, in 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which called on the President to apologize for internment and pay each surviving internee 20,000 dollars.
Minoru Yasui died in Denver, Colorado on November 12, 1986 and was buried in Hood River, Oregon. An endowed chair at the University of Oregon was named in his honor in 2002, the first in the nation for a Japanese American. Yasui posthomously received the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest civilian award in the country, from President Barack Obama in 2015. The next year the Oregon Legislature designated March 28 of each year as Minoru Yasui Day.