WASHINGTON — Nineteen members of Congress are calling on President Obama to nominate the late Minoru Yasui for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yasui (1916-1986), along with Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, challenged curfew and exclusion orders imposed on Japanese Americans during World War II. Although the Supreme Court ruled against them, their cases were reopened in the 1980s and their convictions were overturned.

Minoru Yasui (Oregon Historical Society)
Minoru Yasui (Oregon Historical Society)

Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998 and Hirabayashi was posthumously honored by Obama in 2012.

The Feb. 9 letter to Obama reads as follows:

“We are honored to recommend the nomination of Minoru Yasui for a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. As members of Congress representing a diverse America, we believe Mr. Yasui deserves this high honor for his work advancing civil and human rights.

“Minoru Yasui’s life demonstrates his commitment to civil rights. As a Japanese American lawyer during World War II, he intentionally defied the military curfew imposed upon American citizens of Japanese descent to serve as a test case on the constitutionality of the curfew. Yasui was ultimately convicted and lost his appeal in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943.

“After the war, Yasui advocated for equality both within his resident city of Denver and across the nation.

“He publicly opposed legislation introduced in the Colorado General Assembly in 1945 to prohibit aliens from owning land, which was designed to disenfranchise Issei (Japanese immigrants).

“He helped Japanese Americans who suffered economic losses because of their forced evacuation during World War II by filing claims for them through the Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, which he did for over a decade.

“He advocated for the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which removed the prohibition on Japanese and Korean aliens applying for U.S. citizenship.

“His advocacy exemplifies our democratic process.

“Minoru Yasui’s commitment to justice went well beyond the Japanese American community. He also fought for the rights of Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, youth, people with disabilities, seniors, international human rights agencies and many others. Yasui recognized the common struggle of all marginalized people and dedicated his life to advocating and achieving results on their behalf.

“In 1946, Yasui helped found the Urban League of Denver, an organization whose mission is to promote the attainment of economic and social self-reliance among poor and disadvantaged African Americans. Yasui served on the Urban League board of directors for eight years.

“In 1963, he helped found the Colorado Latin Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization, and in 1968, he helped found the Denver Indian Center and remained a consultant for the organization until his death in 1986.

“As executive director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations from 1967 to 1983, Yasui founded several agencies, including the Commissions on Youth, Aging, Human Services, the Council on Disabled, and the Office of Citizen Response. His work intentionally included a diverse array of under represented groups.

“In the 1970s, he helped build the movement that eventually led to Congress’ creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980. The commission’s 1983 report, ‘Personal Justice Denied,’ and the work of many people including Minoru Yasui, who served as chair of the Japanese American Citizens League’s National Redress Committee from 1981 to 1985, eventually led to the passage of the 1988 Civil Rights Act, enacted by President Ronald Reagan.

“Unfortunately, Yasui died two years before that enactment and he did not live to see the fruits of his labor.

“In 1983, Minoru Yasui and his fellow challengers of the Japanese American internment, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, filed writs of error coram nobis petitions seeking to vacate their World War II convictions on grounds of governmental misconduct before the Supreme Court. Yasui died waiting to have his case heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This 2008 photo shows a bust of Minoru Yasui that stands in Denver's Sakura Square. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto)
This 2008 photo shows a bust of Minoru Yasui that stands in Denver’s Sakura Square. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto)

“In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Gordon Hirabayashi received the medal posthumously in 2012. Awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Minoru Yasui will help fill a gaping hole in a difficult chapter of American history.

“The medal will rightfully honor Yasui’s bravery and undaunted commitment to justice and equality throughout his life and, at the same time, will honor the over 110,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.

“Minoru Yasui’s legacy is embodied in books, plays, films, and articles and through the work of many organizations. His story is told by Peter Irons in his book ‘Justice at War,’ and in various films that demonstrate his courage and willingness to live his principles: ‘Unfinished Business’ by Steven Okazaki; ‘Family Gathering’ by Lise Yasui; and ‘Citizen Min,’ a segment produced by Mike Goldfein in 1983 for KUTV in Utah.

“His original trial has been presented to audiences throughout the United States in the form of a stage reading, ‘The Constitution in a Time of War: The Trial of Minoru Yasui,’ with narration written by the Honorable Denny Chin, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“Minoru Yasui was committed to civil and human rights and his work exemplified success in cross-cultural collaboration. 2016 will be the centennial of his birth, which will be widely celebrated.

“Recognizing Yasui with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom would be a key factor in kicking off a year of symposia, plays, presentations, a photo exhibit and an autobiography, all of which can be used in school curricula and other formats, so that many can learn about this American hero.

“We salute Minoru Yasui’s life achievements that continue to inspire us today. Minoru Yasui is a most worthy candidate for the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Thank you for your consideration.”

The letter was signed by Reps. Mike Honda (D-Santa Clara), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia), Juan Vargas (D-Chula Vista), Mark Takano (D-Riverside), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles), Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Paul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert), and Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.).

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