More than 70 years after he was arrested for defying a presidential executive order, Minoru Yasui received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House last Tuesday.
Min was my grandpa's older brother, and one of the greatest sources of our family's pride: a folksy, whip-smart lawyer who confronted a variety of public defeats in his life but refused to be discouraged. Just months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Min deliberately violated a wartime curfew that targeted people of Japanese ancestry, walking into the police department in Portland, Oregon, and daring the officer on duty there to arrest him. He was just 25 years old, and willing to spend nine months in solitary confinement to prove his point: He was an American citizen with Constitutional rights.
In 1943, Min's case reached the Supreme Court, which eventually decided that the curfew was a "wartime necessity" -- a decision he would fight up until his death. He never wavered in his conviction that what happened to him and 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry during World War II was both unnecessary and wrong. And he had faith that America would someday be true to its principles: "I do not believe that our Constitution failed," he declared decades later, during his renewed battle to overturn his conviction and see the government officially renounce its discriminatory wartime policies. "I think that some of our institutions composed of men did indeed fail us."
Min fought other battles as well. Early in the war, the FBI branded his father, Masuo, along with other Japanese immigrants, as an "enemy alien" and imprisoned him in a series of federal detention centers, though he was never charged with a crime. Min sat in on his father's hearing, but was unable to prevent Masuo's imprisonment for the duration of the war. And several years after the Supreme Court's disappointing ruling, Min was denied entrance to the Colorado Bar despite his top scores. He went to court again, this time earning a victory and the right to practice law in Colorado.
He went on to be a respected lawyer and community leader in Denver and chairman of the National Committee for Redress, calling on the U.S. government to acknowledge that the wartime exclusion and imprisonment of Japanese-Americans had been a grave injustice. Sadly, Min died in 1986, two years before President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and issued a formal apology and $20,000 to each survivor of the so-called "internment camps."
By the time I was growing up, Min had already become a kind of family legend. I wrote a school paper about him in third or fourth grade, and remember being disappointed that none of my classmates knew who he was. My mom remembers how her Uncle Min had one long, curled fingernail he never cut to remind himself of his time in solitary, when he wasn't allowed to clip his nails, shave, or take a proper bath. He wasn't ashamed of his defeats; he believed that time would ultimately prove him right.
The wartime incarceration looms large in my family's memory, but along with all the painful stories from that time, Min's act of principled defiance remains one of the most important stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we strive to be. He is proof that we resisted, a reminder to keep fighting. To see Min's story revisited on the national stage -- as Americans once again weigh how willing we truly are to uphold our ideals, see value in the lives of people we are taught to senselessly fear, and prove how much we have learned from the darker chapters of our past -- affirms that Min's lifelong struggle is far from over, and that it belongs to everyone now.
As President Obama said last week as he handed Min's daughter the Presidential Medal of Freedom: "Today, Min's legacy has never been more important. It is a call to our national conscience; a reminder of our enduring obligation to be 'the land of the free and the home of the brave' -- an America worthy of his sacrifice."
Min couldn't have agreed more.