As the only Oregon native to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Minoru Yasui arguably should be a household name in the state already. Yet only recently—nearly eight decades after Yasui’s most heroic act—has his journey become known to a wider audience.
“Many people don’t know his story,” says Lynn Fuchigami Parks, executive director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “But he really is a civil rights hero.”
Anyone who encounters Yasui’s former jail cell, which has been relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon and restored over several months by artist Brian Borrello, will find his story hard to forget. The museum has been in the process of relocating from its longtime home on Second Avenue to the Old Town Lofts building at NW Fourth and Flanders. It’s set for a by-appointment reopening on May 7. Once it does reopen, visitors can get a vivid sense of life in Portland’s Japantown—or Nihonmachi—through a collection of artifacts and photographs from the museum’s permanent collection. Yet nothing can quite compare to the arresting power of this eight-by-eight-foot steel cell, where Yasui spent nine months in solitary confinement in 1942 and ’43.
An American Story
“This is all Carnegie steel from Pittsburgh, and probably came on horse-drawn carts,” Borrello, clad in industrial-worker’s coveralls, says of the cell as we talk beside it, his restoration work nearly complete. “It [doesn’t] feel like I’m assembling an antique. It feels like I’m making this cubic sculpture, with the same level of attention to detail and edge finishing and all that.”
Borrello, an artist and sculptor with a succession of acclaimed public art projects during his 20-year career, has long worked with steel and metal, which is part of why he was chosen for the project. But this cell, which was located on the Multnomah County Courthouse’s eighth floor from the building’s 1914 completion until last fall’s relocation, gets its weight from history even more than steel. A case in point: I happened to visit Borrello at work on Yasui’s cell on the 79th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans.
“With my work, I try to connect people with place, or to bring communities together with a focal point,” Borrello explains. “It seemed like there was an opportunity to take this cell that housed this hero, this icon, bring it into the world and maybe create some empathy about what it’s like to be incarcerated, or to be a minority person treated cruelly. I think things like incarceration and corporal punishment are abstract, because it’s always, like, for bad guys. And this was not a bad guy. This was a good guy.”
The museum’s grand reopening in this new location with Yasui’s cell as its centerpiece is also particularly well-timed, given how events in 2020 and 2021 have added a dramatic chapter to America’s ongoing civil-rights-movement. Most recently it’s the racially motivated slayings of eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian Americans. And as Yasui’s cell was about to be removed from the courthouse last summer, George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police prompted millions of citizens to take to the streets in cities and towns across the continent. Portland in particular drew worldwide attention, as protester-police clashes and corresponding clouds of tear gas continued well past the unrest in other cities.
Incredibly, those local clashes were playing out on Third Avenue, where Yasui first made history. “Hopefully it’s a gateway or portal to his story,” says Holly Yasui, co-director of a 2016 documentary about her father called Never Give Up! “It’s so relevant. As my dad said, this is not just about being Japanese. This is an American story.”
Minoru Yasui was born in Hood River in 1916 to Japanese immigrants, or Issei, who ran a small family dry-goods store called Yasui Brothers as well as an orchard. Though his English-speaking father had become a pillar of the community, in the 1920s Oregon experienced a wave of anti-Asian sentiment, stoked by the Ku Klux Klan. Yet Yasui and his seven siblings were raised to be patriotic. After graduation from high school (as salutatorian) and the University of Oregon, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and joined the ROTC, Yasui became the first Japanese-American to graduate from the University of Oregon’s law school in 1939, then the first admitted to the state bar.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he reported for duty to his U.S. Army unit. He was not allowed to join and instead was given indefinite leave. About the same time, his father was arrested by the FBI.
“I remember the sheriff in Hood River telling me that it wasn’t safe to be walking down the street because someone could take a shot at me,” Minoru Yasui recalled in a 1983 interview included in the Never Give Up! documentary. The Hood River News even printed the names and address of all Japanese-American farmers in the area, with the stated goal of forcing them to sell. Yasui moved to Portland and tried to provide legal help to Japanese Americans whose finances had been frozen by local banks.
After President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese American citizens (as well as German and Italian “enemy aliens”) in newly declared military zones such as the Pacific Coast, the young attorney decided to take a stand: to put the constitutionality of Order 9066 to the test.
“I thought it was a completely unwarranted kind of military action,” Yasui explained in the 1983 interview, “with the result that it was completely arbitrary with no consideration or relationship as to the actual military dangers involved. I say this because they were taking the young people, the children, the old people, they were taking females, and it had in my opinion no basis in law. This certainly strengthened my resolve to test the validity of military orders.” In another talk captured in Never Give Up! he explained, “I felt that we owed at least the obligation, as a citizen, to tell the government they are wrong. That is the sacred duty of every citizen. Because what is done to the least of us can be done to all of us. I knew that we had to protest this.”
On the evening of March 28, 1942, Yasui waited at his office in the Foster Hotel (today the longtime home of Darcelle XV) until the 8 o’clock curfew, then began walking up and down Third Avenue, determined to be arrested.
“I walked for over three hours,” Yasui remembered. Approaching a police officer, “I had my birth certificate with me that proved that I was a person of Japanese ancestry. I asked the officer to arrest me and the officer said, ‘Look, you’ll get in trouble. Go on, run along home.’ That certainly didn’t serve my purposes. So I went down to the Second Avenue police station and talked to the sergeant and explained what I wanted done. The sergeant obliged me and he threw me into the drunk tank.”
Then as now, disinformation was rampant. An Oregonian headline read, “Jap Leader Here Paid By Tokyo,” with reporter Jim Woods quoting federal authorities who erroneously suggested Yasui was acting in cahoots with the Japanese government. Though completely innocent of that charge, Yasui called his mother to apologize. But she wouldn’t hear it: She encouraged Minoru to keep fighting.
After initially posting bail and temporarily gaining freedom, Yasui merely traded one confinement for another, joining approximately 3,700 Japanese Americans from Oregon and Southwest Washington at the North Portland Livestock Pavilion (now the Expo Center), surrounded by barbed-wire fences. They hadn’t just lost their freedom—they were being kept in animal pens. Awaiting trial, Yasui was next sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, then transferred back to Portland in November, where he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail.
After his sentence ended, Yasui was no freer than other Japanese Americans. He simply transferred back to Minidoka, where he remained until 1944. He then was allowed to leave for a factory-laborer job in Chicago. Later that year, he moved to Denver, where Yasui had a long and decorated legal career, including a stint as executive director of the city’s Human Rights Commission.
Yasui spent nine months in solitary confinement in the Multnomah County Courthouse, while his appeal made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His first four months, he wasn’t even allowed to bathe or shave. Meanwhile, his family in Hood River had been sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp in California, part of an overall population of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry interned during the war, though not a single one was ever found guilty of espionage or compromising national security.
Yasui continued to fight his wartime arrest record, much of it as part of the Japanese American Citizens League’s larger efforts toward World War II-internment redress. In 1984, Yasui and others reopened their cases after learning that the government had introduced false evidence in related internment-court cases. He filed a motion in federal district court requesting his conviction be reversed and his indictment dismissed due governmental misconduct and an unconstitutional.
The court vacated his conviction but declined to address the constitutionality claims. Yasui’s case was waiting to be heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals when he died in 1986, at which point it was closed. But nearly 30 years later, the story finally came full-circle. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Minoru Yasui the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Artifact and Art
Looking at Yasui’s former cell in its new location at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon—especially standing inside it, as I did at Borrello’s invitation—it’s easy to imagine Minoru Yasui serving his nine months of solitary confinement there. But it also connects him to the long line of jailed political prisoners of the past, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. It tells a collective story: that justice is hard fought for.
“I think what’s so unique about it is it’s a space you can walk into and be enclosed by in that history. Incarceration is a big deal right now,” Holly Yasui says, perhaps thinking of a signature Trump-era narrative: immigrant children in cages. “ It’s something that a lot of people are thinking about. I think it’s a timely exhibit.”
The cell is also powerful as sculpture: big and heavy and full of patina, like some vast Richard Serra rusted-steel artwork. Like Serra, Borrello has had to be proficient with a blowtorch and many other industrial tools. “When I started drilling through these panels, the drill went right in and it stopped,” the artist recalls, pointing to the back wall of the jail cell. “So I got a cobalt bit, drilled, and it stopped. A titanium bit: drilled, and it stopped. Everything I tried, I couldn’t get through it. Turns out it’s these layers: a quarter-inch steel plate, a sixteenth-of-an-inch of regular steel, an eighth-of-an-inch of hardened high-carbon tool steel, and another sixteenth-inch of steel. I had to blow through with a cutting torch.”
It’s this combination of history and physicality that makes the cell incredible: not just what you’re looking at but in the deeper chord it strikes. I was reminded of an idea credited to the Japanese Mono-ha movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (translated as “School of Things,”), led by theorist Lee Ufan, who saw art as yohaku, “an encompassing relationship rippling outward like soundwaves from a pealing bell,” as Portland art critic Richard Speer described in a recent essay on Portland artist Avantika Bawa’s work for the Ford Family Foundation, “affecting everyone for miles around.”
Speer cited yohano while writing about Bawa’s installation in her native India called Pink Scaffold in the Rann of Kutch. Like Yasui’s cell, Bawa’s installation consists of steel bars, yet the artwork communicates the opposite of confinement.
“The formal resemblance is so strong, yet the cell has a lock and key, a locked door, which makes all the difference,” Speer says by email. “A scaffold is directed toward expansiveness and exteriority, the cell compaction/containment and all inward pressure.” Indeed, Bawa’s scaffold in the desert, and the way it encourages one to appreciate the vastness and ever-changing light and color of the landscape and sky, makes me think all the more about their absence to someone in solitary confinement for nine months.
Bawa’s recent exhibit at Agenda gallery in Southeast Portland, featured drawings and models of the desert scaffold. It even includes a quote from Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows that could apply to Yasui’s perseverance over those nine months of solitary confinement: “If light is scarce, we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”
Leaving the Courthouse
All of which is to say that while preserving and moving Yasui’s cell “was kind of a no brainer, it was a little crazy too,” laughs Fuchigami Parks.
The effort began when Holly Yasui sought out the cell in 2015 for her documentary, using an uncompleted, unpublished copy of her father’s autobiography. “There’s about seven pages about his jail cell. He thought it was on the east side of the building, which it was, and we knew it was a corner,” she explains. Eventually she was able to identify the cell and film it in the courthouse.
Multnomah County Judge Nan Waller suggested saving and relocating the cell in 2016, after the statewide Minoru Yasui Day bill passed. “Judge Waller really put some energy behind this,” Holly Yasui says. “We felt like we were not alone.” Peggy Nagae, Yasui’s former attorney from 1980-86, recommended the Japanese American Museum as a destination. As Fuchigami Parks recalls, the timing for the museum was not exactly ideal. “We had not even found our new location, and we didn’t know what we would do with it if we moved it,” she says. “But we knew we had to do it, right?”
Once the building was sold, the museum was given only a short window of time last fall to remove the cell. Though the summer Black Lives Matter protests had already reached a crescendo, there were still frequent demonstrations happening just across Lownsdale Square, often spilling to the vacated courthouse’s front door—like other downtown buildings, it had been boarded up during the pandemic.
That backdrop, recalls Brian Kimura, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon’s architect, gave the Yasui cell-removal “this eeriness about it. Not only are the streets empty and all boarded up, but you know that the previous night things were pretty raucous down there.” Inside the courthouse, where many Portlanders have served jury duty, “It just took on a totally different feel. There’s no natural light and there’s no people in there. You could just feel this…tension, and this little bit of nervousness.” Yet the cell, Kimura realized, “has interconnectivity with these historic events downtown. It’s as if his story was meant to be re-told.”
The cell’s disassembly and removal from the courthouse’s eighth floor was painstaking. “Those panels weren’t going to fit into the elevator. So they had to start cutting: not only the metal wall panels but the jail cell bars down the sides,” Kimura says. Initially the plan was for the museum’s third-party exhibit designer, Seattle’s Pacific Studio, to oversee the cell’s reassembly. But because of the pandemic, the firm passed.
“That kind of left us in a hole. But that’s when I thought of Brian Borrello. I realized this was his sweet spot. He’s the metal man,” Kimura says. “I reached out to him and he was really excited. He wanted to go see the jail cell in person, and shortly after he was like, ‘sign me up.’ He really kind of saved us. He’s such a creative mind. But he’s also so hands-on. When he talks, you can almost see his mind working.”
That was good, because this was no Ikea flat-pack, and there was no instruction sheet. “It was pretty fascinating just to see all these pieces of metal, these artifacts of a jail cell, disassembled and sitting on wood blocks on the floor. How is he going to put this together? But Brian had a plan,” Kimura adds. “He had to create his own rigging, his own way for moving panels, and to weld he had to hoist panels in place and lock them in place, so he could get very level, very flush reassembly conditions.”
When I visited in February, the cell was nearly reassembled, save for the original toilet and cot. As if solitary confinement weren’t difficult enough to endure, the toilet was always located in the front of the cell, as if to rule out any last semblance of privacy and dignity.
After visiting Borrello and the Yasui cell on the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, I also happened to talk with Fuchigami Parks on another significant date. The key to Yasui’s cell had just been found after going missing for years. Obviously Borrello and the museum had already been able to open the cell, but the key was an important artifact with added symbolic value.
Indeed, while Yasui’s cell is all about confinement, his larger story is one of transcending such constraints. It’s precisely the imprisonment that makes his such a determined voice: the caged bird who sings, as in Maya Angelou’s poem:
The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
After interviewing Borrello and Fuchigami Parks on red-letter dates, I was reminded by Angelou’s poem that there was one more anniversary coming. Since 2016, every March 28 in Oregon is officially Minoru Yasui Day, the date on which, in 1942, Yasui was arrested. These dates are keys of sorts, opening greater awareness for a civil rights hero too long underappreciated here, and an inspiration for justice-seekers of many communities today.
“You can look around and see, unfortunately, the country hasn’t learned the lessons from its past,” Fuchigami Parks says. “We can see how that impacts generation after generation. It’s a commitment for us to do the work that we do, and join with other allies in their fight as well.”