Testing the Law: Minoru Yasui’s Centenary

Black and white photo of man in a suit and tie looking straight ahead
Minoru Yasui/ Hanasono Studio / 1945 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Gift of the daughters of Minoru Yasui

This month we celebrate the centenary of the birth of the civil rights attorney Minoru “Min” Yasui (1916–1986), who was instrumental in the struggle for civil rights for Japanese Americans and a defender the rights of all Americans.

Born on October 19, 1916, in Hood River, Oregon, Yasui was the child of Japanese immigrant parents. After earning a law degree from the University of Oregon in 1939, he moved to Chicago, where he worked at the Japanese consulate. He resigned his job immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The weeks and years that followed were harrowing for all members of Yasui’s family as they and thousands of people of Japanese descent living in the United States became the targets of scrutiny, suspicion, and discrimination. The Treasury Department summarily froze the bank accounts of his parents’ thriving agricultural and grocery business. His father, Masuo Yasui, was arrested and sent to Fort Missoula, Montana, as an “enemy-alien.” Yasui repeatedly tried reporting for military service at Fort Vancouver, Washington, but was rejected.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, thus granting the secretary of war the power to designate parts of the country as military zones. Within those zones, General John L. DeWitt declared a curfew affecting all persons of Japanese descent. In the spring of 1942 Japanese Americans were ordered to report to “Assembly Centers,” and later sent to “internment” camps where they were imprisoned away from the West Coast.

Yasui tested the constitutionality of DeWitt’s orders on March 28, 1942, when he deliberately violated the curfew and then surrendered himself for arrest. At his trial the judge decided that the law was unconstitutional as applied to American citizens. However, he also stripped Yasui of his American citizenship, therefore allowing the curfew to stand. Yasui appealed this decision, and in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated his citizenship, but also declared that the curfew law was constitutional. Throughout this time Yasui was imprisoned at a Portland police station, a Portland “Assembly Center,” the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, in solitary confinement at the Multnomah County Jail, and again at Minidoka, where he remained until 1944.

Black and white photo of man in three quarter view looking at the camera
Minoru Yasui/ Unidentified photographer / 1946 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Gift in loving memory of Minoru and True Yasui 

The two photographs included here—recently given to the National Portrait Gallery by the Yasui family—are from a key period of Minoru Yasui’s activism in Denver, Colorado, where he relocated after his release from Minidoka. As revealed by an inscription on the back of the print, the first portrait was submitted to the Japanese American Citizens League in 1945. In the 1930s Yasui had helped found the JACL’s Oregon chapter, and in the 1980s served as chair of its National Committee for Redress. The committee’s efforts came to fruition with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, through which the U.S. government formally apologized and issued payments of $20,000 each to more than 82,000 surviving internees of the more than 120,000 that had been imprisoned.

The second photograph, with its endearing dedication to his parents, was made in 1946—the year Yasui won a court appeal allowing him to practice law in the state of Colorado. Though he had passed the state bar exam the previous year, he had not been allowed to practice on account of his criminal record.

In Denver, Yasui went on to advocate for the civil rights of not only Japanese Americans, but also numerous other cultural groups. He helped found the Urban League of Denver, the Latin American Research and Service Agency, and Denver Native Americans United. He also worked on Denver’s Commission on Community Relations for more than thirty years, the last sixteen as its executive director. We are grateful to his family for enabling the National Portrait Gallery to tell his story through these vintage photographs.