By Kathy Cook Hunter
The internment camp experiences of a Japanese-American family from Hood River will be the topic Tuesday, March 17, 7 p.m. at Silver Falls Library. Joan Yasui Emerson will share her family’s stories that are featured in the 2009 Oregon Reads selection Stubborn Twig, by Lauren Kessler.
Library staff member Spring Quick suggests Emerson’s presentation will be more meaningful if audience members have read the book. The library has 30 copies. The meeting will be in the program room near the library entrance.
Emerson will talk about how the internment affected her family and other Japanese-Americans as well as people in Japan.
“By weaving in many of my family stories,” she said she will discuss how fears were dealt with, lessons were learned and how prejudice affects everyone. “One reason for my grandfather’s demise was that the land he loved was taken from him,” Emerson said.
Stubborn Twig relates how the Yasui family struggled to adjust, endure and go on with their lives after World War II. It begins in 1903 when Masuo Yasui and his wife immigrated from Japan to Hood River.
“They had been educated in Japan, where his family owned factories,” Emerson said. “At 16 he was after his dream of law school, but doors were closed to him. My grandmother was college educated, which was very unusual. They were from a refined, highly developed culture in Japan,” she said, “and he brought those values. Education was foremost in his mind.”
Working hard, the couple opened a general store in Hood River and eventually owned several fruit orchards and many acres.
Masuo Yasui, who spoke fluent English, became the leader of the area’s Japanese community and was an active member of orchardists’ cooperatives, the Methodist Church and the Rotary Club.
His family continued to have great success until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Their lives were disrupted by widespread fear of Japanese-Americans and rampant racial discrimination. Masuo Yasui was arrested as a spy and imprisoned for the rest of the war; his relatives were scattered and some were interned. The government took his land and that of other Japanese-American landowners.
Emerson, his first grandchild, was born at Tule Lake Internment Camp in 1942. She attended grade school and high school in Hood River, where she was a high achieving student and won many awards.
Emerson graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in sociology and received a master’s degree from Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. She and her husband resided for many years in Berkeley, Calif., where they both worked at the university. Now retired and living in Hood River, she is active in many community organizations.
In February 2007, Emerson organized a Day of Remembrance in Hood River to address the silence about what happened during the war.
“The feelings of discrimination were not gone,” she said. “But it was not spoken of much when I was in school. Hood River was a place of vitriolic racism toward the Japanese Americans.” However, instead of the 50 people she expected at the memorial, more than 800 people came from all over the region.
Emerson’s uncle, Minoru “Min” Yasui, a successful lawyer and legal counselor, was the first person to legally challenge President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 when he defied a curfew rule imposed only on certain people such as Japanese Americans, who were widely regarded as a possible threat to the country. His argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942 was that laws should be applied equally to all U.S. citizens. It was one of the country’s most famous constitutional cases.