By Gil Asakawa
Day of Remembrance has grown to be a significant date not just on the Japanese American community’s calendar but for many non-JAs as well.
The Mile High chapter of JACL, for which I serve as the current chapter president, has been hosting Day of Remembrance events for years.
For readers who may not know what the day signifies, the Day of Remembrance marks Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. His signature approved the eventual rounding up and incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — both immigrants and U.S.-born American citizens, including entire families with elders and children — in American concentration camps during World War II.
DOR observances are held across the country on or around Feb. 19 every year. A decade ago, Denver’s DOR was a quiet, small affair.
It used to be held at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law in the law school’s atrium. About 75 chairs fanned out from a podium where speakers gave presentations. One keynote speaker in particular that I remember was Dale Minami, the lead attorney who fought to overturn Fred Korematsu’s conviction for fighting the incarceration.
About five years or so ago, we moved the event to a large auditorium room at History Colorado Center, the history museum in downtown Denver that also has a permanent exhibit about Amache, the concentration camp in southeast Colorado.
We expanded our programming and brought in a variety of speakers and added panels of camp survivors. During the last presidential campaign, we began including discussions of the country’s growing anti-Muslim sentiment, reminding everyone that it happened before, and increasingly, the level of hate, ignorance and stereotypes aimed at Muslims was looking unsettlingly familiar.
The room would come to life with American swing music and Japanese songs of the 1930s and ’40s; videos and slides of the camps would play on a screen as people arrived. We even had a taiko drum performance one year in the atrium outside the auditorium. The audiences grew to around 150-200 people, but room is so large that for a few years, the crowd seemed, well, puny.
Then, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
Last year, we had 500 people, a standing-room only audience that paid rapt attention to the event’s guest speaker, Lane Hirabayashi, an Asian American studies professor and nephew of Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the other men besides Korematsu who fought incarceration to the Supreme Court during the war. His topic was the resettlement of JAs to Colorado after the war and the thriving “Japantown” that developed in Denver.
This year, the unsettled spirit of social justice once again brought more than 400 people to DOR on Feb. 18 to History Colorado Center, and as always, we began the event by asking anyone who had been in a camp to stand and be acknowledged, followed by a request for anyone who had a family member or a friend who was incarcerated to stand as well.
The first request reflected the dwindling number of survivors still alive; the second was a much larger, breathtaking reflection of the ripple effects this American tragedy is still having, generations down the line.
Peggy Nagae, this year’s keynote speaker, paid tribute to a longtime Denver hero of civil rights and social justice, Minoru Yasui.
Yasui was the third man who fought incarceration all the way to the SCOTUS during the war, and lost. Nagae was the lead attorney who fought to overturn his wartime conviction in the 1980s. She was able to get his conviction for breaking curfew overturned, but Yasui unfortunately died in 1986 before SCOTUS could rule on the other aspects of his appeal.
But his standing as a giant in JA history wasn’t all Yasui accomplished. After the war, he settled in Denver and began fighting for the civil rights of all people, not just JAs.
He was a founder of the Urban League, an African-American organization, and he also helped start organizations for Latinos, American Indians and LGBTQ communities.
Yasui was a lifelong supporter of JACL, and he served as president of the Mile High chapter. He was also a founding member of JACL’s Redress Committee and served as the head of the City of Denver’s Commission on Community Relations for decades.
Nagae gave a compelling history of Yasui’s legal battles and career-long commitment to civil rights, and the audience went away familiar with both national and local history that’s important to keep alive, remember and never forget.
On a personal note, I was asked by a Denver nonprofit to write the script for an educational short comic book about incarceration and also about Min Yasui, and we gave out copies at DOR. It was the culmination of a childhood dream, since I wanted to be an artist for Marvel Comics when I was growing up. I didn’t draw these stories, but it was an honor to write them.
You can download a PDF copy of the comic at https://milehighjacl.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/20180219-jacl-dor-comics.pdf.