The Yasui Brothers Store
Simple Staples and Exotic Goods of Oregon History
By Lisa Baker

Masuo Yasui started out at sixteen, carving train rails out of virgin American soil, carrying heavy ties back and forth. He envied his co-workers—mostly full-grown men for whom the hard labor appeared effortless. Within a year, he said later in his diary, he realized the work was too hard for him. Even with the pay at three times what could be made in his Japanese homeland, he decided to quit the railroad and move on.

It was not a triumphant debut.

But 1908 proved a year of more prosperous beginnings as he chose less arduous, more lucrative work, opening the Yasui Brothers store in Hood River with his brother Renichi Fugimoto, who was a blood brother but went by a different last name because he was adopted by a childless aunt.

The store quickly became the focal point of Japanese American life in the area, and while it was a general store, it didn’t satisfy itself with simple staples but imported exotic goods like incense, teapots and rugs from back home. At Christmas time, white customers emerged who didn’t patronize the store regularly, looking for unique wares to give as gifts.

Masuo, however, would not stop at one very successful store, but soon branched into the orchard business. Over time, Masuo found himself sitting atop a highly fruitful venture, owning a large and influential piece of the apple and pear trade in the region.

Years passed and Masuo’s children—there were nine—grew up in Hood River, with its burgeoning Japanese population and burgeoning anti-Japanese faction.

By 1941, all but two of the Yasui children—Homer Yasui, 16 and Yuka Yasui, 14, were successfully raised and out of the house, some in college, some living on their own. A comfortable retirement was nearing for Masuo and his brother.

They were living the American Dream. But on Dec. 7, 1941, their American nightmare began.

The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, and as the country reeled in disbelief, many Oregonians in Hood River and beyond looked at the Japanese people living amongst them with suspicion. Suddenly, the constant carping of the anti-Japanese faction seemed somehow reasonable. Rumors and stories surfaced—Japanese saboteurs were cutting sugar cane fields in Hawaii, destroying crops here and there. Then one surfaced about Masuo, that he had been in his office at 2 a.m. sending and receiving messages from Tokyo. It landed in the newspaper. “At those times it was popular stuff. They sold a lot of newspapers with it and it rallied the people,” Homer Yasui said. “But it was all garbage.”

Even so, a day after the attack, the U.S. Treasury Department shut down the Yasui Brothers store and a handful of days after, carted Masuo off on charges he was spying for the enemy. Hearings began, and when Masuo looked for character witnesses in Hood River, few responded.

Not long after—in May of 1942—the government decreed that all Japanese be evacuated for their own protection and placed in internment camps at various places around the U.S.

The Yasui family—Homer, Yuka, their mother, and other family members in the area, joined a stream of Japanese forced to walk away from the lives they had painstakingly built from the ground up. Some families—like the Yasuis—were able to sell off some holdings and reap at least some value from their investments. Others lost them.

For Homer Yasui, the store had been a warm memory in the midst of a difficult childhood where he was “picked on” for being Japanese. “Many times we went to the store. There was lots of candy of course—my uncle was the one who really ran the store and he was a real softy; my father did the ordering because he was more literate in English. So, we’d get candy and soda pop. On weekends we would hang out there and after the New Year we would help with inventory.”

The Yasui Brothers store, its inventory sold off at bargain prices, was locked up, never to reopen—even after the war.

But a replica of it is under construction at the Oregon Historical Society Museum in downtown Portland, where it stands as a snapshot of a time before America knew fear. It is part of the “Oregon, My Oregon” exhibit that covers highlights of Oregon history from territory times to Nike. It’s the first attempt at a comprehensive Oregon overview in the history of the society, containing a complete Oregon Trail covered wagon, a replica of a Hudson Bay Company ship’s hold, a portion of the lunch counter from the old Newberry’s department store in Portland, and a pair of 1970s Nike tennis shoes.

Rather than simply illustrate the lives and times of Oregonians in various eras, the exhibit draws heavily on conflict: between Indians and white settlers, between the environment and white settlers, between other ethnic groups and white settlers. Marsha Matthews, spokeswoman for the OHS, says the exhibit’s intent is to show how decisions made in the past can affect life in the present and in the future, that decisions being made now form the foundation of life as it will be lived by future Oregonians. “The conflicts are part of history, so we are trying to portray Oregonians in a truthful light,” she said. “When you get to the part where modern Oregon issues are shown in a video presentation, we’re showing that these issues didn’t just spring out of nowhere but are the product of longstanding decisions made a long time ago on how to, say, manage forests and fisheries.”

Certainly the Yasui family’s future could not have been guessed at the time of the internment, where the camps were a crude existence, complete with outdoor latrines and lines at mealtimes. “It was like the army,” Homer Yasui, 79, says now. Meals were nourishing, if not particularly tasty. Housing units allowed immediate family members to bunk together. Residents could associate freely with one another. And while there were stories of Japanese in other camps being shot for trying to escape, Yasui found that camp rules could be bent from time to time.

They were for him. Homer Yasui, like many others, was sprung from internment camp so he could attend college. In all, he spent a few weeks in camp; his sister was released nine months later to finish her high school classes at an off-barracks school and his mother was released to care for family members. Two other Yasui children escaped the internment altogether, leaving the University of Oregon, where they were students, in defiance of government orders, before the mass evacuation there. The family set up a new home in Denver; several, including Homer and his parents, came back to Oregon after a time.

Despite the internment, the Yasui children all went on to lead successful lives: Homer became a surgeon and one of his brothers became a high-profile Bay Area lawyer. But the internment left an indelible mark on Masuo. Although he was never convicted of any crime, and in two weeks was transferred from jail to the internment camps, he suffered under the weight of the accusation well after being released from his internment in January 1946. He never returned to the store or to the orchards in Hood River, instead choosing to retire in Portland. He became a U.S. citizen in 1953, still never having said anything about his years in internment. “In Japanese tradition it is a big shame to be put in jail, whether you did anything or not,” Homer Yasui said. “If something like that happened to you, well, you just did not talk about it,” he said.

Homer Yasui believes that telling his family’s story now, as America continues to grapple with the 2001 attack on its homeland, will encourage Oregonians to be more tolerant of Arab Americans who may otherwise be eyed with suspicion, as his family was. At the same time, he believes the case for tolerance was not helped by the activities of the so-called Portland Seven, Maher “Michael” Hawash, Al Saoub, Ahmed and Mohammad Bilal, Jeffrey Leon Battle, Patrice Lumumba Ford and October Lewis, whose efforts on behalf of the Taliban and against Americans brought embarrassment to Oregon. “When I saw (the stories) about the Portland Seven and Hawash pleading guilty, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, these are bad things.’”

BrainstormNW - June 2004

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