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Sense of place delivers lessons from history

December 10, 2011

On Dec, 7, 1941, the Japanese Community Hall in Hood River was full of people.

On Dec. 7, 2011, another Hood River gathering place was also full.

Maija Yasui and her son, Niko, of Hood River, presented a sobering history lesson and impassioned call for understanding Wednesday in the "Sense of Place" lecture (see box) at Springhouse Cellar Winery in Hood River.

On the seventh-decade anniversary of Pearl Harbor, more than 200 people packed the hall to hear from Maija and Niko.

The community is still learning, and healing, two generations after that fateful night 70 years ago when the world changed for Japanese-American citizens.

Maija, whose parents were Finnish, married Flip Yasui, a Hood River native who is of Japanese heritage. Niko is a Hood River Valley High School graduate who went on to become an English teacher at the high school and now serves as leadership teacher there.

"I never learned about the internments in schools," Maija told the Springhouse audience. "It was only after I finished high school that some wonderful local ladies, namely Nancy Moller and Jean Harmon, started capturing local history so it would be taught in the schools."

Shig Imai, who volunteered for the Army within weeks of the Pearl Harbor attack, was the only local resident present at Springhouse who was in Hood River on Dec. 7, 1941. He showed a Jan. 5, 1942, Hood River News photo of himself among a group of seven local men, with the caption "Here is a group of reasons why you should buy defense bonds."

"All of us volunteered," Imai said.

In January 1942 the federal government, by order of President Franklin Roosevelt, evacuated and interned more than 160,000 Japanese-Americans, including several hundred from the Hood River Valley. U.S. citizens were incarcerated in "camps" throughout the western United States, and deprived of all of their Constitutional rights.

On the night of Dec. 7, 1941, there was a gathering at the Japanese Community Hall, located near 20th and Sherman streets, for Christmas play practice.

"That was viewed with great suspicion," Maija said, an example of the "wartime hysteria" that gripped residents of Hood River just as it did people all over the United States. The Japanese-Americans were forced to sell or give away property and belongings, then removed from their homes.

Only about one-third ever returned; most chose to settle elsewhere.

The Yasuis showed photos of Japanese-Americans in Hood River in the 1930s and 1940s, along with clippings and photos about the internments, and advertisements from the Hood River News that called for boycotts and repression of Japanese-Americans in the weeks prior to internment, and then warned the internees not to return after the war.

The Yasuis also screened the documentary "A Family Gathering," by her niece, Lise Yasui, chronicling Lise's efforts to understand the troubled life and times of her grandfather, Masuo Yasui, the owner of Yasui Brothers store in Hood River and leader of the local Japanese-American community in the part of the 20th century.

For the film, Lise Yasui interviewed Yasuis for three months, and every other month for year and a half. Home movies and family interviews helped inform her but real understanding came later.

"I couldn't get any sense of what my grandfather's life must have been like during the war until I found his letters," she says.

On Dec. 12, 1941, Masuo was arrested as a "potentially dangerous" enemy alien.

In the film, his granddaughter, Yuko, says that the family did not know if Masuo and other arrestees would be "shot, sent to Japan, or where would they go.

"That was the most terrifying thing; not to know where he was going."

The Yasui store was closed, then seized; and one day the family found it "taped-up and a sign saying this is 'enemy alien property.'"

(Today, the Yasui Bros. store location, First and Oak streets, is home to the new Yasui Building, anchored by Celilo Restaurant. Owner Maui Meyer created the same type of doorway designed by Masuo Yasui, one angled to meet both First and Oak Streets.)

After Masuo's arrest, the Yasui family was forced to sell their land and possessions for whatever they could get.

Masuo was taken to Montana and accused of being a spy; and held until January 1946, with never any full explanation of why he was held for nine months after the war had ended. Masuo and his family settled in Portland, where they opened a language school to help immigrants hoping to gain citizenship. In 1952, a federal law was passed granting Japanese immigrants the right to become citizens.

On Dec. 3, 1953, Masuo, along with numerous other Oregon Issei, did just that.

In a letter to one of his grandchildren, he wrote, "Now you can tell people who thought I was a spy, 'read my record and know better.'

"People should be judged according to our own deeds," Masuo wrote.

"Remember Dec. 7, 1941, but also remember Dec. 3, 1953."

Maija Yasui pointed to the internment of Japanese-Americans, to long-standing laws that had restricted their rights to marry and to gain citizenship, and asked the crowd at Springhouse to "look at the immigrant population we have today.

"Both Niko and I share this at schools and around the state, trying to get people to look at some of the things we did to immigrant populations, year after year, generation after generation.

"It was recycling of very racist tendencies, and recycling our hate over and over again," said Maija, who works as prevention coordinator with the Hood River County Commission on Children and Families.

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