Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice relates the life history of an American hero. Minoru (Min) Yasui was born in Hood River, Oregon in 1916 of immigrant parents. He was the first Japanese American attorney in Oregon and during World War II, he initiated a legal test case by deliberately violating military orders that lead to the incarceration of over 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in U.S. concentration camps. He spent 9 months in solitary confinement awaiting his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him. The film depicts his and his family's wartime experiences in the temporary detention centers and the Tule Lake and Minidoka concentration camps.
After the war, Min Yasui moved to Denver and continued to defend the human and civil rights not only of Japanese Americans but for Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, religious minorities, children and youth, the aged, low income people, etc. In the 1970s and 80s, he spearheaded the redress movement to win reparations and a formal apology from the government for the injustices against Japanese Americans during World War II. He also reopened his wartime case, and it was in appeal when died in 1986. He is buried in his hometown of Hood River, Oregon.
December 7, 1941 is a day that will live in infamy – in part because of the reaction of the U.S. government to the bombing of Pearl Harbor against its own citizens of Japanese ancestry. One young man immediately protests – U.S. citizen by birthright and the first Japanese American attorney in Oregon, Minoru Yasui.
He purposely violates the first military order – a curfew - that led to the incarceration of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps, in order to initiate a constitutional test case. He knows that any order discriminating against a citizen on the basis of ancestry is wrong. On the first night that the curfew takes effect, he walks the streets of Portland, Oregon, for hours. No one takes any notice. But he doesn’t give up. He looks for and finds a policeman on the beat, and pulls out the curfew proclamation and his birth certificate, which and he demands to be arrested.
The policeman says “Go home sonny or else you’re going to get into trouble.”
But Min Yasui won’t give up. He marches to the Police Headquarters and talks the desk sergeant into arresting him and is thrown into the drunk tank.
Who is this man, who defies the most powerful government in the world, in the face of the extreme anti-Japanese sentiment stoked by the vengeful hatreds of war? He is the third son of immigrant parents, born and raised in the farming community of Hood River, Oregon. Encouraged by his father to put down roots in the soil of America, he helps to found a chapter of the patriotic Japanese American Citizens League (JACL); he serves in the Reserve Officer Training Corp. He is a patriot to the core; he believes in the principles of democracy and justice enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Immediately after the U.S. enters the war, he reports for duty as a commissioned ROTC officer but he is summarily rejected. He opens a law office in Portland in order to help Japanese Americans whose banks accounts are frozen, licenses revoked, denied access to their homes or businesses because of the curfew and travel restrictions.
When the military posts “evacuation” orders the entire Japanese American community on the West Coast is uprooted and imprisoned it is a zero tolerance policy: men, women, elderly, children, infants, orphans, institutionalized and hospitalized persons.
Min is taken, along with about 3,000 other persons of Japanese ancestry to the Portland Livestock Pavilion “Assembly Center,” and thereafter to the Minidoka concentration camp in the desert badlands of Idaho. His family in Hood River is taken by train to the Pinedale “Assembly Center” and the Tule Lake concentration camp in northern California.
When his legal case comes up for sentencing, he is escorted back to Oregon by military police and the U.S. District Court finds him guilty. He spends nine months in solitary confinement, awaiting the appeal of his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also rules against him. Released from jail, he is sent back to the Minidoka, trading one prison for another.
But he doesn’t give up. In 1943 the Army creates an all-Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Min volunteers again, but is now rejected because of his criminal record. A confusing “Loyalty Questionnaire,” administered to all adults in the concentration camps, results in thousands of Japanese Americans transferred to the Tule Lake, the segregation camp for those to be sent to Japan. When the government reinstitutes the draft, mandatory military service for Nisei men in the concentration camps, young men from all the camps refuse to register as long as they and their families are imprisoned in concentration camps. Min receives permission for temporary leave in order to make a tour of some of the camps to recruit for the 442nd and dissuade the draft resisters, who end up receiving sentences of 3-5 years in federal penitentiaries. Min returns to Minidoka and provides free legal services for those who remain there as he awaits the ruling on his application for permanent leave.
When he is released from Minidoka, he Min moves to Denver, Colorado where he studies for the state bar. He receives the highest score in the exam but is denied entry to the Colorado Bar, again because of his criminal record.
But he doesn’t give up. He appeals that ruling to the Colorado State Supreme Court and wins the right to practice law in the state. He marries True Shibata, and opens a one-man law firm. His defense of human and civil rights is not only for Japanese Americans, but for all Americans. As an attorney and as Executive Director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations, he helps to found and develop numerous nonprofit organizations and the number of pro-bono hours he works on behalf of community groups is staggering. In recognition of this, the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award is named after him, and continues to this day in Denver.
During the last years of his life, Min dedicates himself heart and soul to the redress movement, seeking an official apology and reparations for the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II. He criss-crosses the country, attending hundreds of meetings, making hundreds of speeches, writing thousands of letters, reports and articles.
When researchers discover evidence that the U.S. government falsified evidence in his World War II trial, Min re-opens his legal case along with two other litigants, Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi. That legal case is still in appeal when he dies. But as his attorney Peggy Nagae says, HE NEVER GAVE UP … and his legacy lives on.
In 2015, President Barak Obama awards a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Minoru Yasui, saying “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, the home of the brave.”
And Min Yasui himself, in one of his last interviews says: “when you subjugate, when you suppress or oppress any group of people, you are really derogating the rights of all people because if you can do it to the least of us then you can indeed do it to all of us … If there is suffering or pain that is unfairly imposed upon anyone, it's my duty, it’s your duty to try to alleviate it because that's the way in which we gain a better life for all of us.”