Roots and Branches: Drums, song carry Minoru Yasui’s message forward

The Portland Taiko Drum Troupe

The Portland Taiko Drum Troupe

Last Thursday’s kick off of the Minoru Yasui Tribute events in Hood River was a rousing success.

The Portland Taiko Drum Troupe got the hearts of the ever-swelling audience pumping with some interactive storytelling and drumming. The beat of the Taiko Drums was an appropriate backdrop to the brief snippets of stories about Yasui’s life interspersed between their rhythmic drumming selections. With each set the audience learned a little more about Yasui, native son of Hood River and Oregon’s first Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. The Tribute committee is grateful for the Hood River Library’s sponsorship of the Portland Taiko Drummers in helping set the stage for the community events that follow in September and October. Thanks too for Community Education’s enthusiastic support of the event. By adding the Taiko Drummers to the incredibly popular Hit Machine performance, a thousand or more people were exposed to the injustices suffered by Japanese Americans who were forcefully removed from their homes and imprisoned in desolate camps for years during World War II.


Kendra Wilkins

The grassy amphitheater at Jackson Park was a soup bowl of generations, overflowing with infants, children, parents, grandparents and great grandparents clapping, singing, dancing and visiting with one another. The sweltering heat of the daytime gradually eased as the sun slowly sank behind the west hills of the valley, but the energy exuded by the crowd kept the entire evening steaming.

The multigenerational appeal of Families in the Park was perfect for the Tribute Committee’s message: the fight for human rights and social justice can never belong to just one generation but must engage all generations, present and future, to ensure that discrimination against others is not perpetuated. Telling Yasui’s story and inspiring new generations to continue the fight is the cornerstone of his legacy. Without the message carrying forward in the heart and passion of each new generation, all can be lost as time passes.

The great-great-niece of Yasui, 15-year-old Kendra Wilkins eloquently captured the feeling of Japanese Americans when they lost their homes, businesses, farms and pets through discriminatory practices perpetuated by the U.S. government. Perhaps most painful was the branding of the Japanese community as traitors by their peers, classmates and neighbors, and forcefully living with restrictions on accessing their bank account, confinement to their homes in the evening, restriction on the number who could gather and where they could travel simply because of their ancestry. It was these initial discriminatory practices that Yasui protested and led to his incarceration and false allegation of being a traitor that he fought in the courtrooms of Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. Kendra’s acapella rendition of Tom Russell’s song “Manzanar” captured the pain and emotional emptiness experienced by so many of those wrongfully imprisoned and wrongfully accused.

Living in Hood River is an inspiration to those working for social justice. There are many groups who are passionate about their work and striving to keep those shameful parts of our history from repeating themselves. They keep past and present stories alive, in front of the community to help us learn from our mistakes.

Yasui was a trailblazer when it came to civil rights of all Americans, especially the disenfranchised. While his work for the Japanese American groups is legendary, he was steadfast in his support of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, and raised the banner for equal rights for women and the gay lesbian population long before it was politically correct.

Several generations of the Yasui family participated in the kick off. Yasui’s great nephew, Niko Yasui, shared a little about the Hood River Museum’s popular Cemetery Tales coming up Sept. 9-10-11, at which he will play the part of Yasui as a young man growing up in Hood River. He highlights Yasui’s first fight for the legal rights of Japanese Americans and the discriminatory practices of stereotyping all Americans of Japanese descent as untrustworthy and potential traitors to the United States government. Appropriately, the great, great nieces and nephews of Yasui passed through the audience with small calendars highlighting the upcoming events and demonstrating their generations commitment to service and social justice.

The crowd was invited to participate in the theatrical readings from the play “Citizen Min” entitled Vision and Vigilance on Oct. 18 at Columbia Center for the Arts followed by a panel of diverse leaders and round table discussions on the relevance of his life work in this century. The community was also encouraged to attend a birthday bash on the lower library lawn on Oct. 19, what would have been his 100th birthday, with the unveiling of the legacy stone and a pledge to further the pursuit of justice in each and every one of our lives. Yasui family members will travel from across the United States to thank the community, students and legislators for their support of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Oregon’s passage of Minoru Yasui Day to be celebrated in perpetuity every March 28. The medal will be on display in Library Lane along with a historical exhibit detailing Yasui’s life work.

The evening of Oct. 19 will bring the community back to the Columbia Center for the Arts to watch the documentary “Never Give Up,” written by Holly Yasui. The documentary highlights Minoru Yasui’s early years in Hood River and the beginning of his life work in fighting for the equal rights of all citizens. Editorial comments will be made by Yasui’s daughter Holly and questions may be asked of other Yasui family members present.

Yasui was a humble man whose roots run deep in Hood River Valley. Some of the apple and pear trees that his immigrant father planted over a century ago still produce fruit and are being farmed by nephews and great nephews. The fifth generation, the “Gosei,” are already engaged in the legacy set by the immigrant Yasui family. It is the hope of the Tribute Committees, local, state and nationally that the spirited fight for social justice and human rights that Yasui stood for continues to inspire others to carry the banner of “Justice for All.”

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