Holly Yasui of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, passed away from COVID-19 on Oct. 31, according to Seattle-based Densho. She was 67.
The youngest daughter of Minoru Yasui (1916-1986), a civil rights hero who challenged the World War II curfew order directed at Japanese Americans on the West Coast, she was a tireless advocate for preserving the memory of her father’s landmark Supreme Court case and for connecting his case to current events.
The Supreme Court ruled against Min Yasui and two other Nisei who challenged the government, Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi. In the early 1980s, all three cases were reopened by a team of mostly Sansei lawyers through a “writ of error coram nobis” on the basis of newly discovered evidence that the wartime government knowingly gave the court false information about the loyalty of Japanese Americans.
Yasui died at age 70 while his case was still being litigated, but his 1942 conviction for violating the curfew order was vacated.
His legal team appealed because he also wanted a evidentiary hearing on the substantive allegations of the petition, especially introducing material that showed the government knew about materially exculpatory evidence. The case challenging the constitutionality of his conviction was pending before a federal appeals court at the time of his death.
Holly Yasui wrote a play, “Unvanquished,” and produced a film, “Never Give Up,” about her father’s life, and also co-led a successful campaign in 2015 for her father to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama, with daughter Laurie accepting on his behalf. Korematsu received the medal from President Bill Clinton in 1998 and Hirabayashi was posthumously honored by Obama in 2012.
Barbara Yasui, an education consultant for Densho, shared this remembrance: “Holly was my cousin, and I knew how dedicated she was to honoring my Uncle Min’s memory. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that she was equally passionate about and committed to working for social justice for others. She was a chip off the old block, and her father would have been so proud of her.”
Holly Yasui was born to Min and True Yasui on Dec. 29, 1953 in Denver, where her father served on the Commission on Community Relations. Her sisters Iris and Laurie were born there too. She graduated from Denver’s South High School in 1971.
She studied fine arts at the University of Colorado, film at USC, and comparative literature and communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but did not continue to work in those fields. Instead she focused on writing, editing, and graphic design, which she practiced and taught in Seattle before moving to Mexico in 1991.
Yasui won the Mulicultural Playwright’s Award in 1992 for “Unvanquished,” which was first performed in 1990 at the Annex Theatre in Seattle.
Since retiring from a grass-roots community development center in 2013, she devoted herself full-time to the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project, co-founded with Peggy Nagae, Min Yasui’s lead attorney in the 1980s.
“Holly Yasui and I have been traveling the road to justice for many years,” said Nagae. “We co-founded the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project and then the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project. The first to submit Min’s successful nomination for a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to him posthumously by President Obama in 2015, then her film, ‘Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice.’
“In addition, she worked on the successful passage on a permanent Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, and later efforts on amicus briefs, a school renaming movement, and a whole host of other projects. She dedicated many years to ensure that Min’s legacy — standing up for justice during World War II and his civil and human rights efforts in Denver and elsewhere — be remembered so that future generations of leaders, especially AAPI leaders, know about his life’s work.
“She was a friend, colleague and fellow traveler on this road. In tribute to Holly, may we live our best lives, fight for justice, and Never Give Up. I will miss you, my friend.”
Zainab F. Chaudary, communications director at The Hive Fund for Climate & Gender Justice, posted, “I had the absolute honor of moderating a discussion before a screening of Holly Yasui’s film ‘Never Give Up!’ … The panel discussion, held at one of the Smithsonians, was my second chance to work with her, and I still remember her gentle warmth in greeting me and asking after the baby growing in my belly (Musa), but her fierceness in describing her father’s fight and the duty we all have to fight for each other, particularly as it related in 2018 to Muslims and the Muslim ban …
“She was such a beautiful light, and I know she made her father proud.”
Barbara Wishingrad of Sweetwater Collaborative in Santa Barbara posted: “The last time I saw Holly was in July 2018 when she came to Santa Barbara to screen the film she produced about her father Minoru Yasui, ‘Never Give Up,’ sponsored by our local Asian American Association. The time before that was when the film was screened at the Japanese (American National) Museum in Los Angeles in July 2017.
“Holly was a social justice warrior who followed in her father’s footsteps; however, she was reluctant to accept acknowledgement of her own work. For her, it was about the communities she served, not that she was doing anything. If Holly had any fault, it was sometimes not being able to say no when she was asked to do something for anyone else. She was a loving and giving being.
“Holly and I were also close friends for about 30 years. We met in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, in the early ’90s, and kept in touch when I came back to live in the States in 1999. We had similar taste in literature and shared book recommendations throughout the years. The causes we championed in the environment and social justice often mirrored each other — although Holly’s activities to make the world a better place surpassed mine.
“Visiting Holly at her eco-home at Cedesa in Dolores Hidalgo was a high point of my 2010 visit to Mexico, and she gave me numerous resources for my water work in the U.S.
“We also shared deep feelings, as friends do. This last year and a half we emailed more frequently and began some vague planning for my next visit to Mexico. Although Holly had had major surgery this past year and spent some time bedridden, she had moved along in her recovery. The hews that she had died totally took me by surprise. I mourn her loss and know that the world, although enriched by her presence, will miss out on what she could have given if she had more years on this plane.
“May her spirit guide and inspire us.”
In a 2014 article for Discover Nikkei, Yasui wrote about growing up well aware of what had happened to Japanese Americans during the war: “My dad … liked telling how he initiated his test case: walking the streets of Portland for hours after the 8 p.m. curfew proclaimed by Gen. (John) DeWitt, trying to get arrested, but to no avail. He would animatedly recount how he marched into the police headquarters with the proclamation and his birth certificate in hand, insisting that it was the duty of the police to arrest him.
“We always laughed at the punch line, when the officer said, ‘Run along home, son, or you’re going to get into trouble.’
“This anecdote has made its way into many accounts about my dad’s arrest, and I always enjoy reading it because I remember very clearly his intonation and expression when he told it. He was aware of his tendency to be somewhat bombastic and was not above poking a little fun at himself.
“Also, I think it was important to him to remind people that not all authorities were prejudiced — some, like that patronizing but well-meaning cop, were even somewhat sympathetic.
“Another family story, about my grandma, Shidzuyo Yasui, impressed me deeply. In 1942, she was heading the household alone since my grandfather had been taken away in the first sweep by the FBI. My dad got arrested on a Friday night, and over the weekend there were photos of him on the front page of the newspaper with the blazing headline ‘JAP SPY ARRESTED.’
“On Monday, he phoned his mother in Hood River and apologized for causing her so much worry. She replied: **‘Shimpai dokoro ka, susumeru yo! Ganbatte!’** (I’m not worried. I support you! Persevere!)
“This, from a woman whose husband had been disappeared and, in his absence and without a word of English, she was managing the family farm and store in the face of great uncertainties and hostility. She didn’t scold or complain about her son’s arrest, but encouraged him!
“I think that tells volumes about where Min Yasui got his courage and the will to see his case through to the bitter end.”
In addition to her sisters and their families, survivors include her partner, Gerardo Armenta Ojeda.
For those who want to honor Yasui, her sisters request that donations be made to the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project at: https://www.minoruyasuilegacy.org/