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  • Heath Hyun Houghton

On Performing Minoru Yasui

On March 28, 1942, Minoru Yasui violated a curfew imposed on Japanese Americans, with Yasui intending to use the arrest as part of a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the curfew laws, which ultimately led to Executive Order 9066.

Minoru “Min” Yasui was born in Hood River, Oregon in the middle of World War I. His parents were issei, first-generation Japanese, who emigrated to the U.S. Masuo Yasui, Min’s father, came to this country in 1902. The elder Yasui struggled and educated himself, eventually opening a store in Hood River. Min’s parents were married in 1912. His father was one of the few Japanese who could not only speak English, but also was able to read and write. As such, he served as a de facto civic leader, reviewing all manner of documents for people in the Japanese community. Min and his siblings were all nissei, the first children born in this country. They grew up in a warm home that was always full of ideas. Min graduated from the University of Oregon with a law degree, and took a job in Chicago, working for the Japanese Consulate. At the beginning of WWII, Min took leave and returned to Oregon where he opened a small practice in Portland.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese American community was plunged into an atmosphere of fear, recrimination, and confusion. The leaders of the Japanese communities were targeted and isolated in prisons and camps, and virulent misinformation campaigns targeted organizational structures the Japanese community had built over a few generations in the U.S. There was great discord in the Japanese community in the Pacific Northwest. Many felt Japanese Americans should comply with the legislative humiliations that racially targeted their families.  

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order paved the way for the creation of internment camps. Min’s small act of civil disobedience occurred on March 28, 1942; the offense: walking around downtown after 11 p.m., or violation of a curfew that institutionalized a form of discrimination based on ethnicity. The arrest was used as part of a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the curfew laws imposed, which ultimately led to Executive Order 9066.

In 2015, I participated in a reading of "Citizen Min," by Holly Yasui. The reading was part of a moderated panel that explored the role of social activists in our historical narratives. In 2016, this reading toured 17 cities in New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. The play is a biographical dramatization of Minoru Yasui during the 1940s. It allows storytellers to educate audiences about an important civil rights leader and offers his story as a thread in the story of life in the U.S.

I didn’t grow up learning about Minoru Yasui or Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy, who was a Korean American gunnery officer during WWII; or Hazel Ying Lee, who was a Chinese American WASP pilot during WWII. Fred Koramatsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Yuri Kochiyama, Vincent Chin, Soh Jaipil, and others are not figures in the American historical narrative. AAPI civil rights leaders were not part of a cultural heritage easily accessible when I was a child. I had an understanding of the role Martin Luther King Jr. played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I knew of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, had an awareness of Thurgood Marshall and Booker T. Washington. But, even Caesar Chavez and Harvey Milk were distant and vague ideas. Movers and shapers who were of non-white, non-European descent were few and far between.

Media representations matter. Experiencing stories that reflect how we live gives us a vision of what our communities can look like and ultimately, who we are and who can be. We need to see people from all cultures and subcultures and ethnicities and nationalities represented in magazines and books and in film and television and plays and music and art and advertising and history books; when we hide the accomplishments and battles and failures of the people who came before us we disrespect the real work of real people finding ways to live together. I want to know Yurok stories and Hopi legends. I want to hear about Chinese American immigrants building the railroads, and to understand how our economic and drug war policies forced waves of families into displacement, causing generations to search and struggle for a chance to escape poverty and violence.

These are all American stories. This is a time when we need representations of Americans of all shapes and sizes standing up and offering their truths. We must strive to understand the totality of the voices that raise families and build communities; we need to reject an ahistorical, linear narrative and embrace the turbulent and rich complexity that is human history on this continent.

Learn more here.


Heath Hyun Houghton (he/him) is a Korean American adoptee who grew up in rural Michigan and is currently based in Portland, OR. He is an actor, writer, and director. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in playwriting from Goddard College and a B.A. in Theatre with a focus in performance from Humboldt State University. He also studied Korean dance and performance styles in Jinju, South Korea with USD Modern Dance.

To read more about Heath, click on his bio in the Contributors’ tab.


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