Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Min Yasui’s Denver legacy is honoring community volunteerism
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Min Yasui’s Denver legacy is honoring community volunteerism

The 11 recipients of the 2010 Min Yasui Community Volunteer Awards.

Most people living in Denver today probably don’t know the name Minoru Yasui. But the Japanese American community leader has left a legacy that still impacts the city.

I attended the annual Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Awards luncheon on Dec. 1 and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the event had sold out all its 440 tickets. It’s a celebration held every December to honor the monthly recipients of the MYCVA awards, which are given to 11 people who work tirelessly to help the community as volunteers in non-profits or community organizations. Each recipient gets to choose their favorite charity to donate their $2000 award to, so there’s a powerful, positive ripple effect of the Min Yasui recognition. Young Minoru Yasui

Over the years, my wife Erin and I have known a handful of the recipients from Denver’s Asian community, and this year, two Japanese Americans were recipients: Mike Shibata, who’s volunteered with the Japanese American Community Graduation Program, which hands out a whole bunch of scholarships to deserving JA high schoolers (I was the recipient of one scholarship in the mid’70s when I graduated from Alameda High School); and Kimiko Side, who helped establish the Denver Sister Cities relationship with Takayama in Japan (it’s the oldest sister city partnership in Japan).

The other MYCVA recipients for 2010 are:

Wayne Karschner, who works with Art Reach and Very Special Arts program to make the arts more accesible to handicapped people; Art Castro, who helps troubled teens in the Juvenile Cross Systems Change Initiative Project; Rebel Rodriguez (great name), who volunteers at the Ralston House child and family advocacy center; David Licko, who heps the Children’s Museum’s finance committee; Bill Porter, who founded “Bully Proofing Your School” as a program to fight bullying, and work with teen suicide prevention; Donald Eafanti, a barber who cuts hair for free at the Hospice of St. John and volunteers at Laradon Hall; Cynthia Besselievre, who helps the effort to fight Scleroderma with the annual “Stepping Out for a Cure” fundraising walk; Leonard Muniz, who’s volunteered for 42 years with many programs in Broomfield; Chris Wineman, who supports the arts and is involved in the Colorado Business Community for the Arts.

Every year, the MYCVA recipients are an inspirational reminder that citizens can make a city better for everyone by volunteering their time. Sadly, these kinds of accolades go mostly unnoticed in the media. MYCVA was started in 1976 with the Rocky Mountain News as a sponsor, and RMN editor and publisher John Temple promoted these awards in his columns. But now that the Rocky folded, this event and its award recipients go unnoticed by the media, and therefore, by the public.

That must piss off Min Yasui, the feisty, salty, activist attorney who the awards are named after, even in the afterlife. Yasui died in 1986 but was a powerful presence in Denver, and nationally, for decades.

In Denver, he’s best known as the executive director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations from 1967 to 1983. He’s often credited as the man who was so respected within Denver’s ethnic enclaves that he prevented the city from going up in flames of riot during the summer of 1967, when racial tensions ripped apart many other US cities. He’s remembered locally as a tireless fighter for civil rights and an energetic participant in numerous causes and non-profit organizations.

But that’s his Denver-area reputation. Nationally, and especially within the Japanese American community, he’s better-known as one of just three men who challenged the 1942 executive order that led to the imprisonment of 120,000 people of Japanese heritage in internment camps during World War II.

His story’s just not told often enough:

Min Yasui grew up in Hood River, Oregon, the son of a very successful produce grower. The 1939 graduate of the University of Oregon Law School was well-known in the Portland area as the first JA attorney. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was working in Chicago for the Japanese consulate. His father advised Yasui to quit his job and join the Army, but immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Americans were declared enemy aliens and ineligible for US military service.

Upon his return to Portland, Yasui set out to challenge President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. He flouted the curfew that kept anyone of Japanese descent off the streets after 8 pm, and walked up to a policemen at 11 pm on March 28, 1942 and demanded to be arrested. When he was rebuffed by the cop, who simply told him to go home, he marched into the local police station and was finally jailed.

He spent the next few months in a relocation center near Portland, then at the internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho. In November of 1942, the judge in his case agreed with Yasui and ruled that the curfew order was unconstitutional because it affected American citizens. But the judge also ruled that because Yasui had worked for the Japanese consulate, he had forfeited his American citizenship and was guilty of violating the curfew. An appeal was decided the next year by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that American citizens could be subjected to curfews, and but that Yasui had not forfeited his citizenship by working for the Japanese government.

Yasui’s sentence was reduced and he was released from solitary confinement in prison and sent back to Minidoka. His conviction for breaking curfew remained on the books until it was finally vacated in 1984. The famous cases that overturned his conviction along with the convictions of Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, the two other men who challenged Executive Order 9066, were instrumental in gaining the 1987 government apology and redress for Japanese Americans affected by internment.

Yasui moved to Denver in 1944, after a brief stay in Chicago where he worked odd jobs. He passed the Colorado bar exam with one of the highest scores that year but was denied a admission to the bar because of his criminal conviction. With the help of the ACLU, he was admitted to the Colorado bar in 1946, the same year he married True Shibata, who was from California but relocated to Denver after her release from the Amache Relocation Camp in Granada, Colorado. Along with his efforts in civil rights in Denver, Yasui was a powerful force behind the JA redress movement of the 1970s and ’80s.

Min died just three years after his name was finally cleared, but by then his stellar reputation in Denver had long been set. In 1976, he was honored with the establishment of the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Awards. In 1999 the city of Denver honored him again, by dedicating in his name 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.

The University of Oregon, Yasui’s alma mater, gave True Yasui a 2002 Meritorious Service Award, given each year to recipients who have made extraordinary contributions to legal education and the law. The school also announced the Minoru Yasui Endowed Chair, which will brings noted attorneys working in human rights to the university as professors. Yasui was the first Japanese American graduate of the U of O in 1939; he’s also the first-ever Asian American name to grace an endowed chair for any law school in the country.

Min Yasui’s legacy is evident nationwide, especially every time that war and political crises boost the profile of racial hatred and prejudice (like in the months following the 9/11 attacks, when the internment of Arab Americans was raised as a possibility by some).

And in Denver, Yasui’s other legacy — his commitment to volunteerism — lives on in the MYCVA recipients, who are named every month and then feted with a banquet to honor them every December.

(Note: much of this post was repurposed from a Nikkei View column from Dec. 2002)