Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month is a chance to honor the experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and to celebrate the contributions that enrich our country year round. May was chosen for AAPI Heritage Month for its historical significance for the AAPI community. It commemorates the immigration of the first Japanese people to the United States as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad, largely built by Chinese laborers.
It is also a chance to consider that the experience of being American is often not what our country has promised it will be – that we fail to provide the same protections and rights to all of our citizens equally. For us at Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, we know that the law gives us a way to uphold our country’s promises. In the work we do every day, we see that those without access to the law are not treated equally. This month and every month, we’re dedicated to equal justice for all. We’re sharing here a story from our nation’s history because although this period is well known, some of these stories are still not shared or taught as widely as they should be, and these issues are still pertinent in our country’s struggles today.
One significant example of how the law has played that role in modern history is the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Executive Order 9066, signed into law by F. D. Roosevelt in 1942, approved the creation of military zones and gave the secretary of war the right to evacuate whomever they chose. The law mentioned no particular area or people, but it was swiftly used throughout the American West to remove nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses and send them to internment camps, where most were held for the duration of the war.
In Hood River, Oregon, a local businessman named Masuo Yasui ran a store and real estate business that for decades had been a thriving social and economic hub of the fruit farming community there. After 9066 became law, authorities froze his bank accounts and closed his store, and arrested him as “potentially dangerous to the public peace.” He was held without charges in several internment camps and then imprisoned in Santa Fe, New Mexico with 1500 Italian and German prisoners of war, ultimately remaining imprisoned for four years.
One of Masuo’s sons, Minoru, was a lawyer; he tried to get a hearing for his father and when that failed, began exploring other ways to contest the legality of the wartime laws. After consulting with friends in the FBI and in law, he decided to challenge the 8pm curfew for Japanese Americans. One spring evening in 1942, he strolled around Portland after 8pm trying to find a police officer who would arrest him (none would) and then turning himself in at a precinct, where he was eventually charged.
When no local groups would defend Minoru, the ACLU took his case, but a federal judge found him guilty and also ruled that Minoru, born in Hood River, was not a U.S. citizen. Minoru spent almost a year in prison. The case ended up before the Supreme Court, which restored Minoru’s citizenship but upheld his conviction.
Released with a fine after partial time served, Minoru moved to Denver, where he eventually (after appeals) was allowed to practice law. Like his father and his siblings, he became deeply involved in his community, serving on various civic groups including 25 years on a committee to improve race relations (16 years as its director). In 1984, he filed in a federal district court in Oregon to get his conviction overturned, and in 1986, it was finally overturned. Minoru died later that year; he was buried in Hood River. In Denver, a community service award and public plaza are named after him. In 2015 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Minoru Yasui knew what it took his country decades to admit – that the wartime laws were unconstitutional, that they destroyed communities instead of protecting them. Despite this, he spent a lifetime – through his legal work, his civil disobedience, and his bridge-building in his communities – putting his country’s ideals into practice.
We recommend the following resources for further reading:
Image: Minoru Yasui, center, with one of his brothers and his father Masuo. From the Yasui family collection