By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A century after his birth and 30 years after his passing, Minoru Yasui was remembered at a program entitled “Civil Rights Today” on April 30 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
Yasui is best known as one of three Nisei, along with Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, who unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Supreme Court ruled against them, but in the 1980s their cases were reopened on the basis of new evidence and their convictions were overturned. (These are collectively known as the coram nobis cases.)
Speakers emphasized that Yasui was a forceful advocate for civil and human rights throughout his life.
JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura noted that the museum supported the successful campaign to have the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously to Yasui and the designation of Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, where Yasui lived before the war.
March 28 was chosen for Yasui Day because it was on that day in 1942 that Yasui violated a curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in Portland and turned himself in.
Alan Kumamoto, co-chair of Minoru Yasui Civil Rights Committee-L.A., recalled meeting Yasui, who was a leader in the JACL and Boy Scouts of America, while serving as JACL national youth director. Kumamoto also introduced former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and representatives of other recipients: Irene Hirano Inouye, wife of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye; Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu; Lane Hirabayashi, nephew of Gordon Hirabayashi; and Holly Yasui, daughter of Min Yasui, along with other members of the Yasui family.
A video was shown of last year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, in which President Obama presented the medal to Yasui’s daughter Laurie. A trailer for the forthcoming documentary “Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice” was also shown.
Holly Yasui recognized fellow Minoru Yasui Tribute Project co-founder Peggy Nagae, who led the Yasui legal team in the 1980s. “He would be the first to acknowledge and extol Peggy’s amazing dedication and commitment not only to the Medal of Freedom but also the legislative campaign in Oregon that resulted in the creation of Minoru Yasui Day in perpetuity, March 28, and the symposium that we held last weekend in Portland in which members of diverse communities gathered to discuss how we can work together to defend the human and civil rights of all people.
“What the Medal of Freedom would have meant to my dad is a platform and an opportunity to tell again and again the story of the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and even more importantly to expound upon and emphasize its relevance to issues facing us today, the continued racial profiling of people of color, in particular Muslims, whose experiences after the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center paralleled our communities experience after the bombing of Pearl Harbor …
“I think he would also be very pleased today and honored by the turnout of people that have come to this event to celebrate his centennial. I wish I were half the orator that he was so that I could adequately express my gratitude.”
Yasui said that the project has been working on the documentary since 2014, collecting documents, film footage and family photographs, filming in the Multnomah County Jail, where her father spent in nine months in solitary confinement, and conducting more than 25 interviews. She announced that the film’s L.A. premiere will be held at JANM on April 1, 2017.
Lane Hirabayashi introduced Nagae, saying that her career parallels that of Min Yasui: “Min was also head of the City of Denver’s Human Rights Commission, and in that capacity took on cases and causes that went far beyond just the purview of the camps and mass incarceration. Similarly, Ms. Nagae’s work has exemplified her passion and commitment to social justice, tied indelibly to her work on the coram nobis cases but also going far beyond it … Peggy’s advocacy on behalf of those who do not have access to legal defense has deep roots in the Japanese American experience but it extends to other persons of color, to women, to those of different faiths.”
“An Egregious Wrong”
Nagae gave a shout-out to “my colleagues and friends who labored in the fields of the coram nobis cases, which Sansei attorneys and other attorneys from our generation took on to right an egregious wrong that affected the Issei, Nisei and Sansei … also to uphold the Constitution and Bill of Rights for everyone.”
Also on hand for the event were Kathryn Bannai, lead attorney for Hirabayashi case; Dale Minami, lead attorney for the Korematsu case; and Karen Kai, a member of the Korematsu legal team.
Nagae explained that the cases were based on “newly discovered wartime government records that were found principally by Prof. Peter Irons and researcher Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga … These records proved that the internment was not just a mistake but that the government knew at the time that its claim of military necessity to justify the internment was false, and deliberately suppressed, altered, destroyed and misrepresented material evidence to secure favorable judicial rulings in the internment cases.”
Since the three men’s convictions were vacated at the U.S. District Court level, their Supreme Court cases remain on the books and can be cited as precedent, she said.
The attorneys have continued to work together in support of court cases challenging the government’s racial profiling of people of Muslim, Arab and South Asian backgrounds and indefinite detention without charges.
Because of Yasui’s long history of social justice work, it was easy to get support for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nagae recalled. “We had 115 elected officials, national state and regional organizations, and notable individuals, including two Cabinet officials, nine U.S. senators, 26 House of Representatives (members) from 11 states, governors, attorneys general, mayors and state legislators (along with) the National Urban League, ACLU, NAACP, National Council for La Raza, JACL, American Friends Service Committee, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, American Jewish Committee.”
Regarding Minoru Yasui Day, Nagae said, “Not only did the Oregon Legislature pass this bill, they passed it unanimously … This is not the Oregon Legislature of my youth. They would not have passed this. But what could they say after Min Yasui … (became) the only Oregonian to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom?”
The many participants from many backgrounds at the Portland symposium showed that “his legacy, his spirit live on,” said Nagae, who quoted Yasui: ” If we believe in America, we believe in equal democracy. If we believe in law and justice, then each of us, when we see or believe such errors are being made, has an obligation to make every effort to correct such mistakes.”
No Racial Profiling
Mineta, who was President George W. Bush’s transportation secretary on Sept. 11, 2001, recounted the attacks and their aftermath. After he grounded every commercial airliner in the country, a new security regimen had to be established to allow flights to resume. One rule he insisted on was “no racial or ethnic profiling.”
During a meeting between the Cabinet and the House and Senate leadership, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan was “concerned about all the rhetoric in the press … about banning Arab Americans and Muslims from flying or even the possibility of rounding them all up,” Mineta said. “President Bush said, ‘We are all concerned about the rhetoric we’re hearing and we don’t want to have happen today what happened to Norm in 1942.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather … It gave me a good feeling.”
Mineta also accompanied Bush when he addressed a large group of Arab an Muslim Americans at an Islamic studies center. After a Sikh immigrant was murdered in Arizona because was mistaken for a Muslim, Bush held a meeting with South Asian American leaders at the White House and promised to combat hate crimes, Mineta said.
He added, “The rhetoric you hear now about this election … I’m wondering … what progress have we made in 70 years? We’re hearing ‘Round them up,’ ‘Put them in camps,’ ‘Ban them from coming in,’ ‘Build a wall.’”
Mineta, who was introduced by his brother-in-law, JACL leader Mike Masaoka, to Yasui, said, “Over the years, Min has been my north star. Whenever I had to do something, I’d reflect, ‘What would Min Yasui have done in the situation that we’re facing now?’ … There’s no question that there is no one who was more articulate about civil rights and human rights.”
Mineta also credited Yasui, Korematsu and Hirabayashi with helping to get the redress bill passed by the House in 1987, on the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Ron Wakabayashi, western regional director of the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, met Yasui while serving as national director of JACL. Recalling that Yasui submitted testimony to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Wakabayashi said, “He had a profound understanding of this thing we call civil rights, human rights. It is not abstract; it hurts people.”
A former director of both the L.A. County and City of L.A. human relations commissions, Wakabayashi has been involved in numerous civil rights cases, including that of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh who was killed in Mesa, Ariz. in 2001. “When they had a service for him, 3,000 people came. We talked to the people who were there … I went to that service three years in a row.” He pointed out that because they wear turbans, “a Sikh person is five times more likely to be murdered in a backlash event than a Muslim.”
He saw parallels between the post-9/11 backlash and the Japanese American experience, such as a boy named Mohammed who was initially excited about participating in the Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, but later decided to suppress his heritage. “His dad told me that Mohammed wants to change his name to Michael, wants to take down posters and put in boxes all the things from the Hajj.” Many Nikkei were made to feel ashamed of being Japanese because of the camps, Wakabayashi said.
Irum Shiekh, director of “Hidden Internment: The Art Shibayama Story” and author of “Detained Without Cause,” discussed her research comparing the Japanese American and Muslim American experiences. While the prejudice they faced was similar, she said, there are some differences: “Instead of detaining the entire population of 5 to 6 million Muslims living in the U.S., the government focused on detaining … individuals with limited legal resources. I believe the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and the Japanese American community’s support for Muslims stopped the government from taking the horrific and extreme steps it took during World War II.”
Shiekh said there are many other pressing civil rights issues, including police shootings of African Americans, which she characterized as “racialized state violence,” and overuse or misuse of the “terrorism” label. “Data of mass shootings in 2015 reveal that law enforcement officials are quick to label violent actions of Muslims as terrorism … Why it is not permissible for the 5-6 million Muslims living in the U.S. to have family, work or mental health problems? … How do our structural biases make the general public sees Muslims as nothing but terrorists?”
Sheikh pointed out that Dylan Roof’s shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina church was not described as terrorism even though he was linked to the KKK.
In fighting these battles, she said she is inspired by Yasui, who said, “Tell our government when they are wrong. That is the sacred duty of every citizen.”
Participants in the program included Boy Scouts from Troop 379 (Koyasan), 764 (Playa Del Rey), and 719 (Venice), who presented the flag and led the Pledge of Allegiance; harpist Chiara Turner; and Nisei Week Queen Sara Hutter and her court, who served as greeters.
For more information on the documentary and other projects, visit www.minoruyasuitribute.org.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)