Arrow-right Camera


Rights Leader Now Fighting Colleagues


Spokane’s Denny Yasuhara spent his life fighting for Japanese Americans.

All the work paid off last August. Yasuhara was elected president of the 24,000-member Japanese American Citizens League. The league is one of the nation’s largest civil rights organizations.

Yasuhara, 68, should be enjoying his moment on the mountaintop. Instead, the guy’s had a hornet’s nest dropped down his pants.

Seven months after taking office, Yasuhara finds himself engaged in an unexpected and bloody war with some league officials who want his head on a serving tray.

“I did not know how vicious the battle would become,” says Yasuhara, a soft-spoken man who retired from teaching at Garry Middle School in 1989.

“I did not know that rumors, misinformation, attempted character assassination and deliberate distortion of facts would be used to hide the truth.”

Earlier this month in San Francisco, four of the league’s 18 board members held a news conference to formally call for Yasuhara’s resignation.

They claim the new president abused his power, manufactured an economic crisis and misled the board.

The issue revolves around a projected $187,000 deficit Yasuhara cited to justify reorganizing the board and cutting several staff positions.

He says he angered his critics further by freezing reimbursement of travel expenses and making traveling board members pay for lodging.

The organization’s treasurer later claimed there never was a crisis, that the league actually is $31,000 in the black.

Yasuhara believes his enemies are playing games with the figures. That he is a scapegoat for the fiscal irresponsibility of past leaders.

The critics counter that Yasuhara’s incompetence has sidetracked the league. They say they should be focusing on meaningful issues such as opposing congressional attempts to dismantle affirmative action.

Yasuhara denies all charges. He has no intentions of quitting.

He suspects his problems are really instigated by Michael Sawamura - the much younger Sacramento lawyer whom Yasuhara soundly trounced in last summer’s presidential race.

“I think it’s a sour grapes sort of thing,” agrees Doug Heyamoto, president of the JACL’s Spokane Chapter.

“Losing the election has had an ill effect on the gentleman (Sawamura). Now he’s trying to defame Denny.”

The intrigue is murky and convoluted. But that doesn’t make it any less of a sad time for a gentle man who has built such a distinguished record.

People always have been important to Yasuhara.

He became a teacher in 1961, quitting his job in a pharmacy because he found it boring.

Yasuhara was a leader in the struggle to gain reparations for Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II. In 1988, the Senate voted to pay 60,000 survivors who were ousted from their homes and sent to bleak camps.

In 1993, Yasuhara spanked the city’s Democratic Party over racist remarks and behavior of some cement-headed party officials.

The Emperor of Japan decorated Yasuhara last year in recognition of the man’s lifelong contributions.

Despite his many achievements, Yasuhara remains remarkably unassuming. So unassuming, in fact, that he never bothered telling the local press of his national presidency.

“I kept kind of quiet on it,” he says, flashing a wry grin.

A rocky road lies ahead for Yasuhara. He travels to California later this month for a showdown at the league’s district meeting. A national gathering is scheduled the following week.

It will be ugly, yet Yasuhara believes he will prevail.

“I’m not eager to go,” says the president in measured tones, “but you can’t allow others to deter you from what you have to do.”

Tags: column

Click here to comment on this story »