Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Minoru Yasui

By Gil Asakawa--Minoru Yasui's name is preserved forever. Those who walk into the Minoru Yasui Plaza at 303 W. Colfax Avenue will know that he had a great impact on the city he loved. That's the power of a memorial -- it reminds the future of the legacy of the past. And I can think of hardly a more appropriate memorial to someone of Yasui's accomplishments than to name a building after him.
     The civil rights leader was memorialized as the namesake of the very building he worked in for years, as director of what is now called the city of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations. Yasui was one of the Japanese American heroes who first fought in the courts the injustice of the Japanese American internment during World War II. The ceremony was attended by a large contingent of Japanese Americans and Yasui's family, and Denver's Mayor Wellington Webb, among others, spoke eloquently about Yasui's contributions to the civil liberties of all people. At the end of the ceremony, the Mayor unveiled a bust of Yasui, who died in 1986, in the building's lobby. Yasui was one of three Japanese American heroes (the others were Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi) who first fought in the courts the injustice of the Japanese American internment during World War II.
     Born in 1916 in Hood River, Oregon, and a graduate of the University of Oregon Law School, Yasui was working for the Japanese Consulate in Chicago when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The next day he returned to Oregon, and began representing Japanese Americans. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law, paving the way for internment. That April, in order to set a legal precedent, Yasui purposely ignored a Portland curfew, demanding to be arrested. He was eventually sent to Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, and spent part of the time in solitary confinement. He fought the charges all the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost his case. But he never stopped fighting to right the wrong of internment.
     In the late '70s he became involved with the Japanese American Citizens League's efforts to gain governmental redress for internment, a battle that was finally won after his death. It's worth noting that Yasui's life wasn't just focused on the experience of Japanese Americans. He came to Denver in 1944, and served as early as 1946 on a Denver mayor's committee which became the Commission on Community Relations. He became director of the commission in 1967, during a time of turbulence throughout the U.S., and ran it until his retirement in 1983. At the building dedication ceremony, Bill Hosokawa, one of the speakers who had known Min since childhood, reminded people that it was largely because of Yasui's pioneering community network efforts that Denver was one of the few major American cities which didn't suffer race-related riots and civil unrest in the late '60s.
Minoru Yasui Plaza
    Seeing Minoru Yasui's name forever gracing the edifice of a city and county building -- the first Asian American to have this honor -- was a powerful statement to me that this man made a difference in his community. And in the larger American community, the Japanese American Memorial would be an equally powerful statement, that our community served patriotically during WWII but also that we were wronged by our own government. I'm usually too much of a cynic to believe that a memorial can affect people in any way other than mere nostalgia, but I have to admit, I think this memorial is important. It's important to me as a third-generation Japanese American, especially because no one in my family was affected by internment. It's important to me because the memorial would remind others like me, who grow up with no idea of the pain an entire generation suffered. I'd bet anything that if Minoru Yasui were alive today, he'd be asking you to do the same.

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