Minoru Yasui was born in Hood River, Oregon, to issei migrants in 1916. He was the third son in a family of nine children. Like many nisei, Yasui visited Japan as a child and attended Japanese-language school in Oregon. After graduating from high school, he entered the University of Oregon and earned a bachelor's degree in 1937. During his time there, Yasui joined the Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and when he graduated in 1937 earned a second lieutenant's commission in the army's Infantry Reserve. He continued into the University of Oregon's law school, and in 1939 was the first Japanese American to receive his law degree from that institution.
In 1939, Yasui passed the state's bar examination, but because of racism could not find a job with any established law firm in Portland, Oregon. So Yasui moved to Chicago to work for the Japanese consulate, which needed an American lawyer to advise them and handle their daily legal affairs. The day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and heeding the advice of his father, Yasui quit his job and returned home to Oregon. His intention was to enlist in the military, but each time he tried, the army rejected his offer.
On December 13, 1941, the FBI arrested Yasui as an “enemy alien,” despite his U.S. citizenship, and froze his bank account. After his release, Yasui returned to Portland to practice law, mainly to help Japanese Americans who sought his legal advice and offer assistance in their exclusion and evacuation orders. President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 and the military's curfew, which discriminated against all Japanese Americans, seemed an affront to the rights of citizens so Yasui decided to challenge the constitutionality of the curfew. He later wrote in his memoir, “I could scarcely blame anyone for not wanting to challenge the order, and since no one else would do it, I had to” (Yasui, 57). On March 28, 1942, Yasui deliberately violated the curfew by walking around Portland's downtown area and asking a police officer to arrest him. The police instead urged him to return home, so Yasui turned himself in at a police station.
Newspapers reported Yasui's action as “Jap Spy Arrested!!!” It described Yasui as a traitor who betrayed the United States and his Army officer's commission. Radio broadcasts claimed his father had been arrested as an agent of Japan, and that Yasui had cleverly used his U.S. citizenship to secure a law degree so he could become an agent of the Japanese government.
Yasui was indicted, and while on bail he returned home to Hood River, violating restrictions on his movement. The authorities arrested him at his family's home in Hood River, and tried him. On November 16, 1942, federal judge James Alger
Fee found that laws targeting a race as Yasui had contended about the army's curfew infringed upon the constitutional rights of citizens. But he went on to rule that Yasui had forfeited his citizenship by working in the Japanese consulate and thus he was no longer a U.S. citizen. He sentenced Yasui to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Yasui served time in Portland's Multnomah county jail, and Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. While in prison, Yasui wrote: “Nights were bad, because after the lights would go out in the cells, things would become quieter, and one was left alone with one's thoughts …” (Yasui, 59–60). Upon appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court treated Yasui v. United States as a companion case to Hirabayashi, and on June 21, 1943, the court ruled in favor of the government's position and claim to war powers because of the national emergency. It also, in Yasui's case, reversed Judge Fee's finding that the curfew was unconstitutional and found that Yasui had not forfeited his U.S. citizenship by working at the Japanese consulate. The Supreme Court then returned Yasui's case to Judge Fee who removed the fine and decided Yasui had served enough time for his curfew violation.
In 1944, the War Relocation Authority released Yasui from Minidoka concentration camp to work at an ice plant in Chicago. He later moved to Denver. He passed the bar in Colorado, and practiced law in that state, aiding at first mainly Japanese Americans who had relocated to Denver after their release from the concentration camps. Yasui married, had a family, and served in community relations and worked for the Japanese American Citizens League. Because of his labors, Denver's community leaders established the Minoru Yasui Community Service Award in 1976. During the campaign for redress and reparations in the 1970s and 1980s, Yasui worked tirelessly for that cause.
During the 1980s, like Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, Yasui joined the coram nobis movement to secure a rehearing of his wartime conviction. New evidence showed that the government's lawyers had withheld crucial evidence from the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing for a rehearing. Yasui's attorneys filed a
petition in Portland, and they urged the judge to conduct a hearing to allow for testimony on government misconduct and to render a judicial ruling. Instead, on January 26, 1984, the judge declined to rule on a case decided some 40 years earlier, and granted the government's motion to vacate the conviction and dismiss the petition. Yasui appealed, intent on securing a decision on the constitutionality of the mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans, but he died on November 12, 1986, and his case died with him.
Minoru Yasui was buried in his hometown of Hood River, Oregon, next to his parents, brothers, and sister. Yasui's niece, Robin, read his eulogy. “We are remembered after our lives are over, not by the material possessions we accumulate, but the influences we have had on our fellow men. Min left little in material wealth, but his untiring efforts on behalf of all of us, especially the Japanese Americans, will long be remembered. His life has been forever imprinted in the history of the Japanese-Americans …” (Yasui, 73).
Gary Y. Okihiro
Yasui, Robert S. 1987. The Yasui Family of Hood River, Oregon. Edited by Holly Yasui. N.p.: Holly Yasui Desktop Publishing.