Share This Article

Japanese internee Minoru Yasui proved his unflagging loyalty by fighting for his rights.

Minoru Yasui walked the streets of Portland, Oregon, late into the night of March 28, 1942, with one objective in mind: to get arrested for breaking the 8 p.m. curfew in effect for all persons of Japanese descent. The 25-year-old lawyer wasn’t worried that a criminal record might derail his career. As one of the thousands of American born Japanese facing relocation to government-administered internment camps, Yasui was more concerned about the constitutionality of laws that deprived U.S. citizens of their rights based solely on their ancestry. So he set out to make himself a test case.

U.S. District Court Judge James Alger Fee slapped Yasui with a one-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine for breaking the curfew, and decreed that he had forfeited his American citizenship by demonstrating his loyalty to Japan. The telltale evidence: Yasui had spent three months in Japan visiting his grand – parents when he was 9, spoke Japanese and, at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, was working as an attaché to the Japanese consulate in Chicago. It didn’t matter that Yasui resigned his consulate position on December 8. Or that he was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and had reported for active military duty as ordered in January 1942, only to be turned away.

In June 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Yasui’s conviction for breaking the curfew but ordered that his sentence be reconsidered because his citizenship should never have been questioned. After spending nine months in solitary confinement in a 6-by-8-foot cell at the Multnomah County Jail in Portland, Yasui was released from prison and sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in south-central Idaho.

Yasui never lost his belief that he was an American citizen, with all the rights and obligations that full citizenship entailed. At Minidoka, he volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all Japanese-American unit that served overseas with distinction, but he was rejected as being “undesirable.” Still, he counseled other Japanese-American men, imprisoned for refusing their draft notices, to serve. “When you fulfill your responsibilities,” he said, “you’ll be in a much stronger position to demand your rights.”

After the war Yasui moved to Denver, Colo., where he practiced law and served for nearly a quarter century on the Com – mission on Community Relations. Al – though the Oregon federal district court overturned his curfew conviction in 1984, that wasn’t enough for Yasui. He continued to seek acknowledgement that the conviction had been unconstitutional, remaining true to his lifelong credo: “If we believe in America, if we believe in equality and democracy, if we believe in law and justice, then each of us, when we see… errors are being made, has an obligation to make every effort to correct them.” His pending appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were dismissed when he died in 1986.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here