Politics

Q&A with Japanese internment camp survivor Homer Yasui

As someone who has been detained by the U.S. government, coming from a community subject to racist immigration laws, Yasui has spent decades making the connections clear between Japanese internment and immigrant detention. In the aftermath of 9/11, as the U.S. government restructured to create the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, Yasui told his hometown newspaper that Japanese Americans can put “alleged threats to our national security into perspective,” based on their experience during World War II.

Yasui is widely known as a survivor and an advocate, but he is also a father, a retired naval officer, and physician who doesn’t think about internment every day or much at all, really. For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Prism exchanged emails with the 96-year-old to talk about American injustice, his detainment as a teenager, and his historical family. Our conversation has been combined, condensed, and edited.

Tina Vasquez: It’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I don’t know how it feels for you, but these kinds of markers can sometimes feel bittersweet. During Hispanic Heritage Month, for example, I think of all the beautiful things my people have accomplished, but I also think about the racism experienced by Latinx communities and the targeting of undocumented people. What kind of feelings do you have about Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, what does it have you thinking about, reflecting on, or wrestling with? 

Japanese internment camp survivor Homer Yasui.
Photo courtesy: Homer Yasui

Homer Yasui: When I hear that it’s API American Heritage month, my memory drifts back to Portland, Oregon, when our Nikkei community put on the first API American Heritage public celebration over 40 years ago. The Portland Nikkei community put on plays and Japanese dances and panel discussions about the “internment years.” But In those days—and I think that even today in Portland or anywhere else for that matter—the multifarious Asian American communities are not that close, nor do we do a lot of things together. We didn’t in the 1980s and I don’t think that we have done much better in 2020.

What really burns me when I watch videos and the different programs [about API American Heritage] is how badly America has always treated Chinese Americans, beginning from the California Gold Rush days. How do we go about apologizing for all the atrocities that we have committed against them, and how do we go about making real amends?

It also gave me heartburn when I learned that it was an Irish immigrant, Denis Kearney, who so viciously denounced the Chinese immigrants and demanded their expulsion from the United States in the 1880s. And that it was an immigrant from Norway—Olaf Tveitmoe—who founded the Asiatic Exclusion League in 1904. And that it was a Jewish immigrant from England—Samuel Gompers—who founded the American Federation of Labor, but refused to let “Orientals” join his union. Those immigrant white men seemed to have learned very little about how difficult it was for a “foreigner” to be accepted in the United States of America. Did they ever reflect on how much easier it was for them to adapt to the language, customs, and traditions of America because they were white men?

Vasquez: How did these realizations affect you?

Yasui: My take on all this used to be: If it were possible to be reborn again in the United States of America and if power, prestige, money, and influence were important to me, I would want to be reborn as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male.

But now as a 95-plus year old Nisei who has lived through World War II and imprisonment in an American-style concentration camp, and as a pensioned U.S. Naval Reserve officer, I consider myself to be an American of Japanese ancestry who is proud of his Japanese heritage. I do not think that I will live long enough to be considered an equal by most white Americans, although we Nikkei have proved over and over again that we are just as good as anybody else. Why should this proof have to be repeated by every new generation of people of color?

Vasquez: When I spoke to you and your daughter Barbara back in February, both of you talked to me about how your family was always transparent about the racism it experienced. You shared that you and your wife made a decision to be transparent about the internment camps. Paul Tomita, who is also a survivor of internment, told me that many families just didn’t talk about what happened because “the humiliation of being dumped in a camp because of your race is too painful.” I imagine it took some time to fully process and make sense of what happened, and to get to a point where you felt you could talk about it. Was that true for you?

Yasui: Like many wartime Nikkei, I was also highly ambivalent during my college and medical school days when it came to talking about our “camp experience” during World War II. In those days, I toted a mixed bag of indignation and shame, but mostly shame about the so-called evacuation. I was never angry at America, but I was very indignant that my country put thousands of people like me into those damned camps because [they thought] we couldn’t be trusted. Yet at the same time, I figured that maybe we deserved to be mistreated because we had “asked for it” by not looking and not acting American enough.

I already understood that we Nikkei were seen as second-class citizens. From an early age, I knew that being born Japanese was not good—at least by the white people in Hood River [Oregon where I lived]. So, I think that we valley Nikkei knew our place in the social and political hierarchy of Hood River.

In the case of my wife, Miki, and I, the turning point came when our children began to go to school. Barbara was born in 1952, and she went to a lily white elementary school. One day in her third grade class, her teacher announced that she would be testing all of her students in spelling the next day and that in preparation for this test, she would pass out the list of words for students to study. But Barbara’s teacher Mrs. Atkinson said she would be giving Barbara a different, easier list of words because “maybe her parents don’t understand the English language very well.” I was a practicing general surgeon at this time, and Miki was a college graduate.

It was obvious that Mrs. Atkinson knew very little about the Nikkei experience in the United States. Her ignorance gave Miki, Barb, Barb’s younger sister Meredith, and me heartburn. So, it was around then—1959 or 1960—that Miki and I started to make slide presentations about the Nikkei camp experiences during World War II. These presentations were given at schools and colleges. Miki and I did these for years and years. For that reason, our kids knew about the so-called camps from around third grade.

Then, beginning around 1974, the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) began beating the drums for an apology from the U.S. government and for monetary reparations. JACL began asking for the help and cooperation from the Nikkei communities throughout the United States. This drive for Japanese American redress was a huge stimulant for a previously silent Nikkei majority to openly speak up about the camps. This was a very big deal, and a very long campaign, culminating in President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The United States government apologized for the infamous imprisonment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II over the signature of George H.W. Bush, and paid $20,000 to every “evacuee” who was still living at the time Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in August 1988.

Vasquez: You were detained at the Tule Lake Camp for several months. In the scheme of things, this is a blip in your life and you are of course more than this one experience. But it was such a traumatic thing to happen, and it is a part of U.S. history. How did this experience define you or shape you, and what are the ways it was immaterial to who you became?

Yasui: It helped shape my thinking to the extent that I believe that nothing is all bad and that nothing is all good. For example, many Americans think that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents because he took us out of the Great Depression and led our country to victory over evil Japan and Germany during World War II. I agree that he did that. But in my judgement, Roosevelt also was a white racist who for his own political gain, put my people in camps to satisfy his prejudices and those of the American public. It was wrong to put us into the camps, but because it was such a wildly popular notion, that’s just what Roosevelt did.

Former governor of California and former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren, was another such person in my opinion. Warren too, was a very influential person who advocated for the imprisonment of my people during the war. Was he a great governor, a great jurist, and a great man? Yes, he was for some people. But not for me. Was President Thomas Jefferson a great Libertarian and a great president? If so, how does one explain the relationship that he had with Sally Hemings? What is right? What is great?

Vasquez: In a more recent development, some survivors of internment went on to form the nonviolent, direct action organization Tsuru for Solidarity, which is a Japanese American-led organizing effort to end immigrant detention. You are a member of this organization and unlike some of the other survivors in the group, you experienced internment not as a small child but as a young adult. Do you think you experienced internment differently because you were older and it was during one of the most formative periods in life?

Yasui: My comments reflect only my opinions and judgements about my experiences. I speak only for myself. I think that I was a fairly typical Nisei teenager at the time of our imprisonment. Because I was a teenager—17 at the time of the “evacuation”—I didn’t have a lot to lose economically. I didn’t own any real property, I had no business, I wasn’t working for a living, I didn’t have a family to feed and to provide for, and I had little to no responsibilities to or for anybody besides myself. Plus, I no longer had to attend school and I was no longer required to work on our farm over the weekends and during the summer school vacation. I was also being fed regularly—not well, but not god awful either. I could play baseball to my heart’s content. I didn’t really have to work. I could chase girls and go to camp dances. Sure, the food and the accommodations were lousy and comings and goings outside of “camp” [were not allowed], but young people are incredibly resilient and can adapt to almost anything—which we did.

Vasquez: In your daily life, how often do you think of internment? And does the injustice ever leave you?

Yasui: I don’t think about the internment on a daily basis, and haven’t done so since the 1980s when we American Nikkei were involved in seeking redress. [I think about it] when someone brings the subject up, such as in this discussion between you and me or when I see a program or read an article that has some relationship to that subject. I don’t dwell on the injustice of the “evacuation.”

Vasquez: Talk to me about your relationship with your brother Minoru “Min” Yasui, who was also forced into internment. Min went on to make history, which we’ll talk about in a moment, but your daughter Barbara cites both you and Min as her biggest influence for doing work with Tsuru for Solidarity. What was your relationship with Min like?

Yasui: In our family, there were two sets, or triads, of Yasui boys. The first triad, which I will call the “Senior Yasui Boys” were Kay, Ray, and Min, born respectively in 1913, 1915, and 1916. Then, six years later came the second triad, the “Junior Yasui Boys”: Roku, Shu, and myself, who were born respectively in 1922, 1923, and 1924. Min was six years my senior.

The senior boys had their own interests and hobbies, which were very different from the interests of the juniors. But Min used to take us smaller boys down to the river to explore and to fish. He mostly taught us how to appreciate the natural beauty of the Hood River Valley. After Min went away to college, us younger boys didn’t really have a lot of connections with him. Min never had much interest in sports, but he was very interested in intellectual pursuits. We junior boys played baseball and football and tennis while we were in school, and baseball and basketball for amateur groups outside of school. Min debated, read books, and learned foreign languages.

Vasquez: Min challenged the Curfew Law put into place in March 1942, which meant that “enemy aliens” and Japanese Americans could not leave their homes from 8 PM to 6 AM. When the curfew went into effect, Min—who was an attorney at the time—openly defied the law. He was arrested and eventually released, and he took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Though he lost the case and was brutally punished for challenging the law, this was an extraordinary form of resistance and an important moment in Japanese American history. What did you think of what Min did?

Yasui: The underlying principle of Min’s challenge to the curfew law was to contest the constitutionality of the orders that Japanese Americans—who were United States citizens by right of birth—were required to obey the laws which were admittedly constitutional when applied to Japanese “enemy aliens,” which is to say, the Issei parents of the Nisei. At that time, the Issei were not allowed to become U.S. citizens by naturalization. This right to American citizenship by naturalization for the Japanese Issei was not granted until 1952.

On the one hand, I admired Min for the principled and brave stand that he took against a racially discriminatory law. But at the same time, I was appalled that my older brother Min had purposely broken the law and that he would be tried and that he almost surely would be fined and imprisoned. The disgrace of his act, of being put in jail, coming from a family that scrupulously obeyed all laws, bothered me.

When he began serving his jail sentence in November 1942 at the Multnomah County Jail, I completely changed my mind. Since that time, I have believed that Min is a real hero for having taken a principled stand against a blatantly discriminatory law, which the curfew law surely was.

Vasquez: I have to imagine that when Min challenged the curfew law, it felt scary for your family. It makes me think of undocumented communities challenging ICE. There can be retaliation against you, your family, your community—all kinds of things can happen. What do you remember about that time, how did your family feel about what Min was doing?

Yasui: According to Min himself, our mother, Shidzuyo Miyake Yasui, was strongly supportive of him from day one. Our father, Masuo Yasui, was also very supportive of Min’s action, and he wrote letters from his imprisonment at the Santa Fe Alien Detention Station that said so. My sibling Yuka was also extremely supportive of Min’s actions. She still has many, many letters that they exchanged when Min was in the Multnomah County Jail.

Vasquez: A few months back, you told me that you were digitizing all of your old photographs. Because of your family’s experience, you’re not just preserving family history, but U.S. history. How many photos are in your collection and why is this project important to you? What do you hope that future generations get out of it?

Yasui: This is a project that is personal to me. I don’t expect everybody in my family to be as enthusiastic about it as I am. Our family history is important and I strongly believe that one day, generations later, some descendants will be thanking me for having done this.

As of today, Barbara and I have scanned 1,600 old photographs and so far, I have captioned and annotated 1,499 of them. I estimate that there are around 2,000 more photographs that I would like to scan and comment upon. This will be Barbara’s and my gifts to our descendants yet to come.

Vasquez: I imagine going through all of those old photos brings back a lot of memories. What have been the proudest moments of your life?

Yasui: When I graduated from medical school in 1949, because medical school was very hard for me during those extra tough times for the American Nikkei. My late wife Miyuki and I were very proud when Barbara graduated as valedictorian of her class at Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, in 1970. Preceding those very memorable events, I was very proud when my next older brother Robert Shu Yasui was declared the valediction of the Hood River High School Class of 1941 and was also designated “Best Boy” of the entire student body.

Vasquez: I’m always happy to be in touch with you and to learn about what you’re working on. I’m curious, how do you see your work with Tsuru for Solidarity taking shape in the future?
Yasui: I am old, slow, and tired, but that’s okay because I’ve had a fair shot at life and mostly it has been very, very good to me. I can’t complain. I see my role in working with Tsuru for Solidarity as being an old Nisei survivor of the camps who can still remember those days and who can speak up about it.

Tina Vasquez is Prism’s gender justice reporter. She covers issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for reproductive rights, and more. Follow her on Twitter.
Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places, and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling. Follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook.

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