As reported in the March 13 Rafu Shimpo, there is an effort under way to posthumously bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Minoru Yasui. (See http://tinyurl.com/mcbpoqu) That is great. He deserves it. His story is one that needs to be remembered.
Not only that, on Page 45 of the most recent Holiday Issue of Pacific Citizen is an article by one of Min Yasui’s daughters, Holly Yasui, calling for film or video footage of her late father for inclusion in a short film about his life and achievements.
Min Yasui, for the record, is probably most famous for purposely violating curfew orders aimed specifically at Japanese Americans — mainly Nisei in this case — and legal permanent residents — mainly Issei, who were barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, even if they so desired it — after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.
As an attorney, Yasui knew E.O. 9066 was fundamentally flawed, an affront to the Constitution and the rights under law that all Americans were supposed to enjoy. He wanted to get arrested so he could challenge the validity of the curfew and everything that came with it. His case made it to the Supreme Court in 1943 but, ultimately, he lost.
Then, decades later, with the redress movement under way, Yasui’s case, along with those of Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, were revived via a legal procedure known as writ of error coram nobis, in which it is found that the court in the original trial was misled or false or unfair evidence was used.
Yasui died in 1986, however, before his case could get its chance to be retried. The three cases were highlighted in Steve Okazaki’s documentary “Unfinished Business.”
Yasui’s remarkable life showed him to be a pioneer in the fight for civil rights. Someone once told me Min Yasui “was our Martin Luther King.” Interesting comparison, especially since every school child knows who MLK was, yet few adults outside the Japanese American community know who Min Yasui was and that his fight for constitutional rights, including imprisonment, predated the jailing, legal fights, marches and boycotts that made Martin Luther King so famous, and rightfully so.
If there is anyone deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Min Yasui’s name should be at the top of the list.
Now this may not really count as one of his achievements — but Min Yasui is, indirectly, responsible for me writing this column here in The Rafu Shimpo.
How the heck is that even possible?
After college and before moving to Los Angeles for a job at the aforementioned Pacific Citizen, I lived in Boulder, Colo. (Yes, I’m an alumnus of the University of Colorado.) After getting my journalism degree there, I worked for a company called Metro Traffic Control, which provided traffic reports on the radio. (It was later renamed Metro Networks and was sold by its founder, David Saperstein, to Westwood One for a ton of money. When I worked there, however, I was paid so poorly that I seriously contemplated applying for surplus government cheese!)
Somehow I had gotten the idea to create a radio show for the local NPR affiliate, a show that would focus on personalities from Colorado’s Asian American communities. It might be hard for some Japanese Americans who only grew up in Southern California to believe, but Colorado actually had a small but vital Japanese American community, as well as several influential Chinese Americans, and a growing Vietnamese community.
When I lived there, in downtown Denver there was (and is) a square city block called Sakura Square, home to the Tri-State Buddhist Temple, a couple of Japanese grocery stores, a bookstore, a couple of restaurants, a hair salon. It’s probably changed greatly since then, I suppose. I haven’t been back to Colorado since 1994.
Anyway, there were several prominent Japanese Americans who lived in the area, among them journalists Bill Hosokawa, Gil Asakawa and Jimmy Omura (Hosokawa and Omura would undoubtedly wince at being mentioned in the same sentence!), photographer Carl Iwasaki and no doubt many others I’m leaving out.
And, of course, Min Yasui. He wasn’t a media personality, of course, but he was happy to use the power of the media to spread his story and advocate for the redress movement. (Denver has a community service award named for him.)
Min was one of the three or so people I interviewed in the hope of getting this radio show idea of mine — “Colorado Asian American” — greenlighted. I met him when I attended a meeting of the Mile-Hi Chapter of JACL, which I did in the hope of meeting and asking him to allow me to interview him.
The first chapter meeting I attended, he wasn’t there. But a couple of “old-timers” who were there were Tom Masamori (a 100th/442nd vet) and Kent Yoritomo (an MIS vet). Yoritomo brought along a copy of The Pacific Citizen, which was new to me. I thought it was great. (My mom was a JACL member in Dayton, Ohio, and we surely must have had a subscription — but I was a young kid and probably didn’t pay any attention to it.)
I think the Mile-Hi JACLers were just happy to see anyone under 30 at a meeting; I wasn’t yet 25! I was just learning about the redress movement as I came out of my insular shell of being nothing more than a college student. It was fascinating and eye-opening.
Anyway, as I got to know them, I learned that Yasui would indeed sometimes attend the meetings. I finally met him and must have asked him to participate in “Colorado Asian American.” I have a reel-to-reel tape of me interviewing him to prove it. (I also have the digitized version of the interview on my laptop.)
The Min Yasui interview also served as fodder for a class assignment. I was already done with school by this time, but I took the CU equivalent of a UCLA Extension course on writing for magazines. As a class assignment, I wrote a profile of Min Yasui, whom I grew to admire greatly. He was a not only a gentleman and a scholar, to use that clichéd term, but he was also a great intellect and speaker. His voice and delivery demanded one’s attention.
Anyway, I saw a display ad in Pacific Citizen, advertising an assistant editor opening at the paper in Los Angeles. I applied for it, as my “career” at Metro Traffic was going nowhere. As a writing sample, I included the profile I had written on Min Yasui. Harry Honda, who was the paper’s GM at the time (The Rafu’s J.K. Yamamoto was running the paper as acting editor but ready to leave for greener pastures in San Francisco) must have liked it, because I got the job. Then, with Pacific Citizen under my belt, I would later get this gig as a columnist for The Rafu Shimpo.
So, that’s how Min Yasui is indirectly responsible for me writing this column. It may not be one of his greater achievements, to be honest. But that’s why and how it happened. Thanks, Min.
Next time out, I hope to have some more info on Holly Yasui’s project.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.