Minoru Yasui (1917-1987) was a lawyer who fought for the civil rights of Japanese Americans during World War II, most notably he argued about the unconstitutionality of the internment camps.
During the early 1900s, many Japanese people moved to the United States because of better opportunity for advancement. Due to historical racism against Asians, however, they often found only back-breaking labor open to them. Many of the Japanese labored in the lumber mills and fruit orchards. Employers doubted that these slender laborers could endure hard work, and so the Japanese worked twice as hard to prove their abilities. For example, logging companies cut down thousands of acres of forest, leaving only stumps and brush behind. Up to 600 Japanese laborers were hired each season to clear the stumps with hoes and dynamite. There might be as many as 100 stumps per acre, and often it took several days to clear one stump.
Settle in America
Many of the Japanese immigrants came to America intending to earn their fortune and return home to Japan. Minoru's father, Masuo Yasui, however, intended to settle in America. In Japan, Masuo learned English and converted to Christianity, following his father and brothers to America in 1903. In 1908, when he was twenty-one years old, he moved to Hood River, Oregon, a town with a large Japanese population. With the help of his brother Renichi, Masuo established a merchandising business called the "Yasui Brothers Company." The store sold Japanese goods such as soy sauce, imported rice, and toys. Renichi worked the counter, talking to customers and running the register, while Masuo kept track of the accounts and the bills. Together they built a small and successful business. Masuo gained recognition in Hood River as a key businessman and leader, eventually expanding his business to include contract labor and selling insurance.
Minoru's mother, Shidzuyo Miyake, finished college in Japan and worked as a teacher before coming to America. This was unusual because at that time, most Japanese women were uneducated. She and Masuo met briefly as children and exchanged letters and photographs while Masuo lived in Hood River. When Masuo proposed marriage in a letter, Shidzuyo accepted and moved to America to live with her new husband.
Shidzuyo traveled by ship to the United States to marry Masuo, breathing stale air, eating hard rice and sleeping in bunk beds. Ship toilets consisted of mere holes in the floor; the women could see the sea water rushing below. After three long weeks, Shidzuyo arrived in Hood River in 1912.
In time, Shidzuyo and Masuo had eight children— Minoru was the third son in a wealthy family. His parents encouraged their children to become Americanized and expected them to succeed in church and school. Minoru, a small, wiry boy with a quick wit and love for challenge, excelled. Independent and confident, Min, as he was called, set high academic goals for himself and performed well. He and his older brothers, Kay and Chop, were the first Japanese Americans to attend school in Hood River and the first to enroll in the Methodist Sunday school and Boy Scouts.
Children born in America to Japanese immigrants were called nisei, meaning "second generation." The nisei acquired both Japanese and American identities. Parents expected their nisei children to respect customary Japanese values such as authority, yet at the same time, the nisei, born and raised in the United States, displayed American characteristics such as independence. But nisei children were not totally accepted by others. The community viewed them as foreigners because they looked Japanese and spoke both languages.
Despite their success in school, Kay, Chop, and Min found childhood difficult as nisei. Due to their Japanese background, they made few friends during their school years. Isolated, Kay, Chop, and Min played with one another, fishing, hunting, and exploring the Oregon countryside.
As the oldest son, Kay held considerable power and authority within the family. His parents, however, expected Kay not only to be a role model for the younger children but also to represent the family within the community. Despite Kay's excellence in school and status as a budding poet, Masuo, a very strict father, disciplined Kay more harshly than the other children. On February 27, 1931, Shidzuyo told Kay to wake Minoru. Instead, Kay played a joke on Minoru by painting his face black. When Minoru awoke, both Minoru and his father yelled at Kay, shaming him tremendously. When a person is shamed in Japanese culture, they bring shame not only upon themselves but upon the entire family. Perhaps the combination of shame and pressure from his school and family grew too much for Kay to endure. Nobody knows exactly why, but Kay poisoned himself that evening, drinking water mixed with strychnine, a rat poison. He died that night.
Stricken with grief by the suicide, the family spoke little about the circumstances, simply informing the community that Kay died. Few people, including Minoru's younger bothers and sisters, knew that Kay had killed himself. The loss affected both Minoru and his father immensely, and Masuo blamed them both. He wrote Minoru: "Yourself and father are directly responsible for the loss of our dearest one. Your feeling and thought of the 27 of February meet exactly mine. You will surely feel very keenly toward your responsibility… . There lies our common sorrow and great point which we must suffer for the rest of our lives."
In 1933, at the age of sixteen, Minoru left Hood River to attend the University of Oregon in Eugene. He continued scoring high marks, rising quickly to the top of his class by making the honor roll every quarter and performing well in debates. Participating in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), he was promoted to commanding officer by the end of his junior year. Minoru's classmates also elected him as secretary/treasurer of the dormitory and president of the school's international organization.
Despite his obvious talents, Minoru continued to experience prejudice due to his Japanese background. The fraternity clubs excluded him, for example, because membership was reserved for white males only.
After graduating, Minoru entered the University of Oregon's law school. He found his studies uninteresting but worked hard and at the end of his first year became the first Japanese American member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. In 1941 Minoru Yasui became the first nisei to graduate this law school. He passed the Oregon bar exam that summer.
Yasui tried to set up a law practice in Portland, but few people had money due to the Great Depression. So he took a job with the Japanese Consulate in Chicago. Meanwhile, prejudice against the Japanese grew. Other Americans believed that the Japanese filled jobs that did not belong to them, noting that the Japanese worked hard and became successful businessmen who competed with whites. Some whites, afraid the Japanese would take over the country if they could buy land, sought to limit land ownership to U.S. citizens only. In California, angry whites passed a 1913 act forbidding aliens to own land.
World War II and Pearl Harbor
By 1941 the Allied powers of Great Britain, France and Russia had fought for several years against Germany and the Axis powers. The United States, however, refrained from entering the war until December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The decision to declare war against Japan, Germany, Italy, and the other Axis powers greatly affected the Japanese Americans. Most Japanese immigrants lived on the West Coast, and the U.S. government began to fear that Japan had spies among the immigrant and nisei populations. Encouraged by anti-Asian groups, the government questioned the loyalty of the Japanese and Japanese Americans, assuming that they would side with Japan because of their ethnic background. The government, in fact, accused Japanese Americans of disloyalty to the United States and arrested many people on suspicion of spying or conspiracy. The frightened victims went to great lengths to prove that they were loyal Americans. In California, for example, a Japanese group bought the U.S. government a $50,000 antiaircraft weapon to show their support for the war.
Effects of prejudice
Yasui resigned his position at the Japanese Consulate the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Later that week, the government informed Yasui that his father had been taken into custody on suspicion of spying. Yasui, it said, had to report to Fort Vancouver in Washington to fulfill his duty as a commanding officer in the U.S. Army.
When Yasui arrived at Fort Vancouver on January 19, 1942, the army would not let him report for duty. They turned him away because they did not understand how somebody who looked Japanese could fight for the United States in a war against Japan. Yasui repeatedly tried to report for duty, but the army refused each time and, after some debate, eventually classified him as not eligible for service.
Yasui traveled to Fort Missoula to attend his father's trial. At the trial, Yasui saw his father, a man who gave up his homeland to work and raise his children in the United States, accused as a spy and a traitor. Helpless, Yasui returned to Portland and set up a small office to help Japanese immigrants and their children deal with new legal problems caused by the war, such as the mounds of paperwork the government required of all people with Japanese ancestry.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, designating some areas as sensitive military zones from which any or all persons might be removed as the military saw fit. Yasui realized that this was directed at the Japanese.
The U.S. Constitution states that all citizens are equal under the law, and Yasui, recognizing the order as a violation of this ideal, prepared to fight a legal battle. "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," Yasui declared.
In order to test the constitutionality of a law, the law must first be broken. Yasui decided to fight the first discriminatory order against the Japanese that resulted from Executive Order 9066. On March 24, 1942, General John L. DeWitt issued a curfew for all German, Italian, and Japanese nationals, as well as for citizens of Japanese descent. Yasui believed this violated his basic constitutional right as a citizen to equal and fair treatment. He aimed to challenge "special treatment" of persons based on race alone.
On March 28, 1942, at 6:00 Yasui calmly told his secretary to inform the police that a Japanese man was illegally out after curfew. He walked out the front door, down the street and waited for the police to come. They never showed. He kept walking and eventually found a policeman standing on the street. Yasui told the policeman to arrest him since he was obviously of Japanese ancestry and was therefore breaking the law by walking around after dark. The policeman told Yasui to run along because he would only get himself into trouble. Finally, about 11:00 Yasui walked into the police station and demanded to be arrested. The police sergeant threw him into the drunk tank, where he stayed until Monday morning when his bond was posted.
The fight begins
After his arrest, Yasui began an intense letter-writing campaign to Japanese associations and to General DeWitt. To drum up support, he circulated petitions protesting the discriminatory treatment of the Japanese. Yasui contacted various Japanese organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). But the JACL chose not to support Yasui because it did not want to support a constitutional challenge. Eager to demonstrate loyalty to the United States, many Japanese believed it was best to comply with governmental requests. The JACL supported this philosophy and actually tried to put a stop to Minoru's case. Still, Yasui held fast to the idea that loyalty to the United States meant abiding by its Constitution. If the nation strayed from the basic rights outlined in the Constitution, Yasui believed that it was his duty as a citizen of the nation to correct the error.
The war increased hostility against the Japanese. The attack on Pearl Harbor had created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Many citizens, including some military persons, feared a Japanese attack on the West Coast. Japanese submarines sank several American ships in the Pacific in late December 1941, causing an uproar among the nation's leaders. They were positive that Japan had spies in the United States and suspected all Japanese Americans as capable of betrayal. From February to March 1942, people of Japanese descent were encouraged to move from the West Coast to other areas of the country. But it was difficult to find any other area where they were welcome. And often relocation was not possible because the Japanese had no money or connections.
On March 26, 1942, the military posted a notice in West Coast newspapers stating, "All Japanese and Japanese Americans residing in military area number One, comprising the western parts of Washington, Oregon, California and southern Arizona will be forbidden to leave the area after Sunday, the Western Defense Command announced tonight." It was the last chance to leave voluntarily. In May 1942, the military posted a final order forcing the Japanese to evacuate. They had to leave their homes and relocate to special centers designed to keep them in one place and under control. Yasui notified the army that he would evacuate only if they arrested him. On May 12, the military arrested and escorted him to the Portland detainment center, which he dubbed the "North Portland Pigpen."
Minoru's case and constitutional debate
In June 1942, the case United States of America v. Minoru Yasui was brought before the U.S. District Court in Portland. The case was important to the government because the outcome could confirm that its wartime policies towards the Japanese were legal. The government argued that Japanese characteristics naturally prompted these people to betray the United States, and therefore all Japanese were potential spies for Japan. The government realized, however, that this would be difficult to prove and intended to use "judicial notice." Under "judicial notice," lawyers do not have to prove facts that are deemed self-evident. The government wanted to establish the genetic tendency of Japanese towards treachery as self-evident.
Yasui and his lawyer Earl Bernard argued that it was unconstitutional for the government to single out one group of citizens based on ancestry. The Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments guaranteed the civil rights of citizens to equal protection and due process of law. Everybody agreed that these rights were absolute during times of peace and that internment constituted a violation of these rights. During wartime, however, the government has special authority. At stake was whether General DeWitt had the power, during a time of war, to single out U.S. citizens based on their race and strip them of these rights.
The verdict was not reached until November. Judge Alger Fee referred to a decision set in 1866 called Ex Parte Milligan. In this case, the courts ruled that while Congress could authorize the president to suspend habeas corpus (which protects citizens from illegal or unjust imprisonment) and declare martial or military law, martial law could not exist unless civil courts ceased to function. Judge Fee noted that in Minoru's case, the president and Congress had not declared martial law, nor suspended habeas corpus. He declared that holding citizens was undeclared martial law and was not constitutional due to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Aliens, however, could be detained. Judge Fee then ruled that because Yasui had worked with the Japanese Consulate, he had renounced his desire to be a U.S. citizen. He stripped Yasui of his citizenship and pronounced Yasui guilty, as an alien, sentencing him to one year in jail. Although Yasui immediately instructed his attorney to begin the appeals process, he spent nine months in solitary confinement. He was allowed neither to exercise nor shower.
The Supreme Court
In May 1943, Minoru's appeal reached the Supreme Court, the highest body of law in the country. The government restated its position that the Constitution allowed the government special "war powers" for the protection of the people and that the Japanese were dangerous. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, it said, must give way to the decision-making of the military during wartime. The government argued that the order was a military necessity and proceeded to describe the supposedly forthcoming Japanese invasion on the West Coast as reason enough to detain the Japanese Americans.
The justices considered the case for months, finally reversing Judge Fee's decision. They referred to the recent case of United States v. Hirabayashi. In this case, the Court determined that special governmental powers, outlined in Articles I and II of the Constitution, such as "provide for the Common Defense" and "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper," override individual rights during wartime. General DeWitt's actions were, in fact, constitutional during a time of war. Also, the Supreme Court ruled that Minoru's citizenship had nothing to do with the issues at hand. It returned his citizenship, and Yasui, as a Japanese American, was sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in southern Idaho.
Life in the internment camps
When the Japanese received their orders to evacuate, many were given less than forty-eight hours to leave their homes. Two-thirds of these people were United States citizens by birth. They left their homes, their possessions and their businesses, often selling them for less money than they were worth. The government froze Japanese bank accounts, and bandits either stole or destroyed most of the possessions left behind. People sometimes threatened the Japanese physically.
Most of the internment or concentration camps contained numerous barracks with no furniture. Located in remote desert regions, the camps were filled with dusty air. Inmates lacked hot water and privacy. People ate together, slept together and bathed together. Camp life shattered family solidarity, an important characteristic in Japanese culture. Fathers had little power over their family, and mothers lost control over their children. Parents ate in huge mess halls, often separated from children and relatives. Some Japanese died in the camps, while many found the conditions hard to bear: "The thing that really hit most of us was the lack of privacy. There was no privacy whatsoever… . No closets. Just a potbelly stove for each family in one room. I really felt sorry for some of the teenagers, especially the shy ones. Some couldn't take it. I recall one girl that lost her mind."
Months passed, and the internment camps slowly came to resemble life in the outside world. Some developed recreation facilities, libraries, social halls, and playing fields. Each center housed several thousand children, so schools opened in 1942. They were woefully lacking in desks, chairs, and most importantly, teachers. To pass the time, women organized arts and crafts classes, such as flower arranging and gardening. Cut off from the outside world, the interns lived a ghostlike existence. One intern expressed a feeling of being forgotten: "It seems that since evacuation, I have gradually lost contact with my friends outside. You see, when one is enclosed in the narrow confines of a camp, strange things happen. Time and the life of the world outside simply pass by without touching us."
By November 1, 1942, almost 112,000 evacuees were in temporary or permanent centers, even though during this time there was not one proven case of spying or sabotage by a Japanese American. Italian and German Americans, whose families came from other Axis countries, were not bothered.
Japanese internment officially ended on December 17, 1944, towards the end of World War II. Many people spent as long as two years in the camps and afterward faced new problems. A great number did not have anything to return to, having lost their homes and businesses due to the move to the camps. Yet Japanese Americans continued to face fear and prejudice. There were instances of racial terrorism and refusals to let them buy supplies or apply for desperately needed jobs. Movie theaters refused to sell them tickets, and barbers would not cut their hair. In many towns, businesses posted signs stating, "NO JAPS ALLOWED."
Released from Minidoka in 1944, Yasui moved to Colorado, passed the state bar exam, and set up a law practice. In 1946 he married True Shibata, with whom he had three daughters. Despite Minoru's talents, the family remained poor for many years. Yasui did a great deal of volunteer work, founding a City League and the first interracial Boy Scout Troop. During the 1950s he quit law. Yasui labored for the next twenty-four years on Denver's Commission on Community Relations to set up programs for the city's minorities. In time, the city recognized him as an outstanding citizen, established a monthly service award in his honor, and proclaimed Minoru Yasui Recognition Day.
Yasui continued his protests against the federal government for the rest of his life. In the 1970s, he led the JACL in a fight to right the wrongs done to the Japanese during WWII. He believed the government should admit its mistake by publicly apologizing to the Japanese Americans and paying compensation to those who suffered internment. In 1980 Congress funded a committee to report on the internment camp situation, and in 1983 the committee recommended that the government apologize. The committee also suggested $1.5 billion (about $20,000 per person interned) as compensation. Yasui meanwhile fought the government to clear his name, as his 1942 conviction still held. The government refused to reverse its decision, and when he died of cancer in 1986, the Supreme Court closed the case. Yasui died fighting.
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided each survivor of internment with the proposed $20,000. He also issued a formal apology, admitting the United States had wronged its citizens: "What is important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor, for here we admit to wrong. Here, we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."
Although Yasui was no longer alive, his children heard the message. It had taken over forty years for the United States to formally recognize its mistake. But, in the end, the government had reaffirmed the constitutional right of all of its citizens to be treated as equals. Yasui, in his long series of legal battles, played an important role in launching the struggle that led to this just verdict.
Further Reading on Minoru Yasui
Fukei, Budd, The Japanese American Story, Minneapolis: Dillon Press, Inc., 1976.
Hopkinson, Lynall, Nothing to Forgive, Trafalgar: Chatto and Windus, 1990.
Kessler, Lauren, Stubborn Twig, New York: Random House, 1993.
Leathers, Noel L., The Japanese in America, Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1967.