By David Yamaguchi
The North American Post
Over the June 25-26 weekend, there were two Minoru (“Min”) Yasui events, a documentary film screening and panel discussion at the Wing Luke Museum on Saturday, and a play, “Citizen Min,” by daughter Holly Yasui, at Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday. As both focused narrowly on Min Yasui’s civil rights actions, it seems worthwhile to review his life in context.
Who was Min Yasui?
As a young attorney, Mr. Yasui violated the World War II curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in Portland, Oregon, on March 28, 1942. This was the date that the restrictions imposed by Executive Order 9066 and Public Law 503 went into effect there. For his efforts, he was jailed for one year and fined $5,000, a substantive sum at the time.
Why does Mr. Yasui’s civil disobedience matter today?
In retrospect, Yasui’s actions were at the leading edge of four key Nisei wartime legal test cases on JA internment.
On May 9, 1942, Fred Korematsu went into hiding in the Oakland, Calif., area in defiance of the order to report for internment. He would be arrested on the street on May 30.
On May 16, 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi, a University of Washington student, violated the curfew order—like Mr. Yasui—and further announced his intent to disobey the order to report for internment.
On July 13, 1942, Mitsuye Endo, filed a “writ of habeas corpus” case from the Tule Lake internment camp. Her case challenged the U.S. government’s authority to continue detaining her without charge. Notably, Endo chose to remain under War Relocation Authority detention, rather than to move inland—as other Nisei began doing in mid-1943 to escape from the camps—to not jeopardize the outcome of her case.
The actions in different states made JA curfew and internment pressing legal issues meriting settlement by the highest court in the land.
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions
In June 1943, the court decided in Yasui v. United States and Hirabayashi v. U.S. that the government could restrict the lives of civilian citizens during wartime. In December 1944, however, the court decided in favor of Endo that the government could not continue to detain loyal citizens. Her case re-opened the West Coast to JAs.
The 1940s legal cases would stand—frozen in time—until review of government documents by legal scholar Peter Irons, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (1966), showed that government attorneys had suppressed information about the lack of evidence for JAs committing wartime sabotage on the West Coast.
This finding opened the way for re-opening the JA wartime cases under “writ of coram nobis,” a legal procedure permitting review of prior cases if substantive information had been lacking at the time.
The Korematsu case was overturned in November 1983, the Yasui case in January 1984, and the Hirabayashi case in September 1987.
Relationship to JA Redress
While I am not a legal scholar, it seems to me that the concurrent Redress Movement to obtain an apology and $20,000 compensation per person from the U.S. government could not have been successful without the wartime Nisei cases and their later reversals. Formal legislation to compensate JAs was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Tom Foley (D-WA) in January 1987. From that point, the bill had to win a majority vote in the House (where it passed 243-141), then Senate (69-27), then be signed by the president (Ronald Reagan, which happened in August 1988). The bill, which became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, could have failed at any point. I see the reversals of the Nisei wartime cases as making it easier for legislators from states lacking substantive JA populations to justify their supporting votes.
The JA World War II Cases in Perspective
To me, the four wartime cases stand out for how far ahead of their time they were. The Civil Rights Movement had not yet happened. It would not be until 1955 that Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her bus seat would set off this storm. The Vietnam War—when many Americans protested against the U.S. government’s participation in it—also lay in the future. Accordingly, the best well-known example of civil disobedience was that of Mahatma Gandhi, who led his march to the sea to make salt in 1930—in violation of colonial British law against salt-making (for which there was a tax).
Winners and Losers
The wartime cases, as decided and overturned, are not perfect. Thus, there were winners and losers. The former include JAs and Aleuts—Native Americans who were forcibly removed from their western Alaska islands during World War II. A third winning group are present-day Muslim Americans—the next new minority group to fall under clouds of suspicion out of fear and ignorance on the part of the American public in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Muslim Americans today have the JA case law to protect them.
Losers included JA internment camp survivors who passed away before the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, and 2,300 Japanese Latin Americans, mostly from Peru, who were deported from their native countries during World War II, detained in the United States, then excluded from the Civil Liberties Act. They eventually received offers of $5,000 a piece, a quarter of that given JAs, despite their greater grievances.