Christmas Day in Jail

December 25, 1942 Multnomah County Jail

... Yep, Christmas Day in jail. It’s the first Christmas I’ve ever spent in jail, and I guess it’s the first Christmas that you have ever spent behind barbed wire fences just like a herd of cattle ...

-- MIN YASUI, letter from jail to his youngest sister Yuka

On December 14, 2020 the jail cell in which Min Yasui was imprisoned from November 1942 until August 1943 was moved from the old Multnomah County Courthouse to the new Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO).

Yasui spent those nine months in solitary confinement in the 6’ x 8’ metal enclosure under conditions that today would be considered “cruel and unusual.” At the beginning, he was locked in 24 hours per day, 7 days per week; he was not allowed to shave or cut his hair or his nails, nor even to bathe. He used the metal sink and rags he made from his clothes to clean himself as much as possible, and gnawed his fingernails to keep them trimmed, but as he later said, he couldn’t reach his toenails.

Around Christmastime, he was permitted to leave the cell in order to take a shower, and thereafter once a week, to attend to basic hygienic needs. But there was no courtyard for fresh air or daily exercise as required today in even the most restrictive high-security incarceration facilities.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, he spent alone in that cold metal cell. And what was the crime for which Min Yasui was so punitively imprisoned?

He walked the streets of Portland, Oregon on a Friday night, March 28, 1942, with the intention of initiating a constitutional test case. The day before, an 8pm-6am curfew for all persons of Japanese ancestry went into effect by order of General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command. Min Yasui was an attorney – in fact, the first Japanese American to pass the Oregon State Bar – and he knew that in order to challenge any law or regulation, a person must disobey it in order to have standing to ask the court to rule on its legality. He knew the racially discriminatory curfew violated the equal protection law in the U.S. Constitution and he wanted to bring a case to court to prove it.

Yasui enjoyed telling the story about how he marched up to a police officer on the street, showed him his birth certificate and the curfew order, and insisted that he be arrested. The policeman told him to “go on home, sonny, or else you’re gonna get into trouble …!”

… As John Lewis later exhorted civil rights activists: If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something, do something, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble …

… As Min Yasui himself said: in a democracy, we have not only the right but the obligation, the sacred duty to tell our government when it is wrong …

So, Yasui did not go home, and he did get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble … because he felt it was his obligation as an attorney and his duty as a citizen to challenge the wrongdoing of the U.S. government’s orders. He knew that singling out Japanese Americans and imposing military regulations upon them based solely on ancestry or national origin violated the equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Unsuccessful with the cop on the beat, Min Yasui marched to the Portland Police Headquarters and there he talked the desk sergeant into arresting him – and thus the case of United States v Minoru Yasui was initiated. He spent the weekend in the drunk tank, and on Monday his attorney, Earl Bernard Esq., bailed him out.

Min returned to his room at the Foster Hotel and worked like crazy for the next several weeks, trying to help Japanese Americans to get their affairs in order – to notarize property titles and deeds, U.S. birth certificates, pay back taxes and estimated taxes – because frightening rumors were flying up and down the West Coast. They were going to round up all of them, deport them, execute them, send them to prison …

In April the Western Defense Command posted notices that all persons of Japanese ancestry had to register and report to Wartime Civilian Control Administration stations for “evacuation.” Min Yasui, along with the entire Japanese American community on the West Coast, was imprisoned first in temporary detention in a so-called Assembly Center (the International Livestock Exposition Center in northern Portland) during the summer, then in a more permanent concentration camp (the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho) in the fall.

Yasui’s curfew violation case came up for trial in June 1942 while he was languishing in a horse stall in the Portland livestock pavilion. Judge James Alger Fee, who heard the case, personally interrogated Yasui, then reserved his decision until November. By that time Yasui was imprisoned with some 10,000 other Japanese Americans in a military-style barrack in Minidoka. On November 15, he was ordered back to the U.S. District Court in Portland, to hear the Judge’s decision. He was escorted by military police and unceremoniously deposited in the jail cell where he would spend the next 270 days and 270 nights, where he “couldn’t see the sky during the day nor the stars at night.”

Author’s Note: In 2015, we were able to identify and film the exact cell where Min Yasui was imprisoned, based on a description he wrote in his memoir – a corner cell with bars on two sides, metal walls on the other two sides, facing a blank corridor with no windows. From the other three corner cells, windows were visible and so my camera operator and I knew we found the right place when we entered the southeast corner and could see only the dim reflection of light on the grime-stained concrete floor cast from a bank of windows hidden from sight.

The jail cell preservation project was suggested by Judge Nan Waller, Multnomah County Circuit Court, to Lynn Fuchigami Parks, Executive Director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO) in 2016. When the County announced its plans to move its courthouse to new quarters and sold the historic building to a private company for refurbishing and commercial use, Waller and Parks visited the site and vowed to preserve the cell that would, of course, be disposed of in the renovation process. Parks moved into action to determine what it would take to save Min Yasui’s jail cell for posterity as a showpiece in the new museum, slated to be inaugurated in February, 2021.

Parks hired researchers to investigate the feasibility of physically moving the cell; completed the paperwork for a number of permissions required by the city and county governments; contracted with engineers, ironworkers, moving specialists, and exhibit designers; and coordinated of all the details involved with the removal, transport and reinstallation of several tons of metal from the top floor of the old Courthouse to the new exhibition space at JAMO.

The jail cell exhibit at the JAMO, slated to open in February 2021, is a unique opportunity for visitors to personally experience the sensation of imprisonment by walking into the dim and cramped space surrounded by the actual bars and walls behind which Min Yasui awaited the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court for nine months while the war raged in Europe and the Pacific. Add to that the fact that his family was also imprisoned in a detention camp in California – JAMO also has a reconstruction of a barracks apartment in those family camps, which can give visitors a sense of what it was like to be Japanese American during World War II.

Yasui’s jail cell is a symbol of a great injustice perpetrated not only against him but all Japanese Americans during World War II. Its preservation at JAMO may serve as a gateway to learning more about the WWII experience and an American hero who is not as well known as others in the civil rights community. Min Yasui was the first Japanese American member of the Oregon state bar, and the first and only Oregonian awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (which will also be on display in the jail cell exhibit). He was honored by that highest civilian award in the nation for his courageous act of resistance during World War II and his lifetime commitment to the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Author’s endnote: This year, as the entire world is experiencing partial or complete lockdown, unable to enjoy customary holiday gatherings, I think about my dad’s Christmas in 1942. He was literally locked away in solitary confinement, unable to see his family and friends who were also unjustly imprisoned and/or excluded from the West Coast of the U.S. where they had lived most if not all of their lives.

When Japanese Americans were finally released from the camps, they suffered huge financial losses and economic uncertainty, but they persevered. It was very difficult to find work and housing in a country that had been inundated with anti-Japanese propaganda for years, but they persevered. They faced great hostility and discrimination, but they persevered. They slowly rebuilt their lives and today, the descendants of Japanese American camp survivors in the Tsuru for Solidarity movement want to be the allies that our families needed but did not have during World War II, advocating for the release of immigrant families from detention, and humanitarian programs to help them to rebuild their lives in the U.S.

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