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Advancing Democracy in the Face of Current Threats

Advancing Democracy in the Face of Current Threats

By Sharon Maeda
NAP Contributor

In 2016, when Minoru Yasui would have been 100 years old, the Oregon legislature unanimously designated March 28th Minoru Yasui Day. It was March 28, 1942. Yasui deliberately challenged the U.S. military curfew for people of Japanese ancestry after the World War II Japanese bombing in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Yasui was a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law. At that time, no law firm would hire him due to his race.Ironically, he used his legal education to take his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

▲Audience at the Minoru Yasui Day, University of Oregon, Portland. Photo credit: Rich Iwasaki.

Yasui challenged the constitutionality of the curfew and disobeyed it. He spent nine months in a solitary confinement jail and then was incarcerated with 10,000 others of Japanese ancestry at Minidoka in Idaho.

Yasui lost his U.S. Supreme Court case. Decades later, the Sansei (third generation Japanese American) attorneys and activists filed a writ of coram nobis with the courts. They proved the U.S. government excluded facts that could have changed the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court case.

Yasui went on to work for justice throughout his life including the Japanese American redress movement and other civil rights issues while working for the City of Denver in Colorado. Today, the Minoru Yasui Plaza is a court building in downtown Denver.

Every spring, various events are held to recognize Yasui. This year, one of the programs was “Advancing Democracy in the Face of Current Threats.” On a dreary Portland day this year, over 100 people gathered at the University of Oregon with members of the Yasui family, Japan’s Consul General of Portland Yuzo Yoshioka and more attending online.

The keynote speaker  was Oregon Representative Khanh Pham, District 46. She was the first Vietnamese American to be elected to the Oregon legislature in 2020.

▲Minoru Yasui’s Presidential Medal of Freedom award citation. Photo credit: Minoru Yasui Legacy Project.

Then a panel of three activists spoke about how they are advancing democracy. Rebecca Asaki, staff for Tsuru for Solidarity, a national Japanese American organization; Amy Herzfeld-Copple, executive director of Western States Center, a nonprofit organization; and Paul Susi who works for Oregon Humanities but spends his time helping the unhoused.Joy and laughter filled the room as a short video produced by Mari Hayman and Caleb Haas, Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) family members of Yasui. The program culminated with the announcement of the winners of the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project Student Awards. They are given in memory of Yasui’s late daughter, Holly Yasui. She was co-founder of the project and produced a documentary about her father.

(Sharon Maeda was the Master of Ceremonies and panel moderator at the 2024 Min Yasui Day.)