Forgotten History

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Japanese-Peruvians interned in the U.S. still struggle for recognition and compensation

It is one of the forgotten tragedies of World War II. Nearly 60 years ago, entire families of Japanese-descended Latin Americans were taken from their homes and, under the guise of protecting national security interests, shipped to internment camps in the United States. Nearly 2,300 people from 13 countries--80% of them Japanese-Peruvians--were rounded up to wait out the war in the shadow of guard towers and barbed-wire fences.

Incarceration cost them dearly. Many Japanese immigrant families--who had begun arriving in Latin America in the 1800s looking for a better life--had grown prosperous in the New World. Peru boasted major Japanese-owned businesses and cultural institutions; Lima, the capital, had six Japanese schools. As the Japanese were shipped out, local authorities grabbed their involuntarily abandoned property. None of it was ever recovered. Stripped of their passports and visas, many formerly prosperous internees found themselves stateless after the war, unwanted by either the U.S. or Peru. Some were never reunited with family members. Others, says Grace Shimizu, head of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project in El Cerrito, California, are still looking for missing loved ones.
A lot of these people lost everything they had, says Xavier Becerra, a U.S. Representative from Los Angeles who has authored a bill that would provide for a forceful apology and equitable remuneration for Japanese Latin Americans, or jlas, who did not benefit from earlier reparations. Becerra's Wartime Parity and Justice Act of 2000 would also require the U.S. government to disclose classified documents related to jla internments. Says Becerra: We should live up to our responsibility.

By most accounts, that responsibility began in 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the evacuation of Japanese Americans from certain strategic areas of the U.S. Describing the action as necessary to protect the Panama Canal, Washington then persuaded 13 Latin American countries to round up their ethnic Japanese populations and send them to internment camps. Records from that era show the U.S. was also interested in collecting jlas it could later trade to Japan for American and European prisoners of war. The Latin nations, meanwhile, wanted to protect relations with their powerful northern neighbor.

German Yaki was 12 years old when his family became a target. All of a sudden my father was not home at lunchtime anymore, says Yaki, now 69. I would ask my mother, 'Where's Dad?' and she would just cry. Yaki's father, leader of the Japanese Peruvian Society in Lima, was sent to a camp in Crystal City, Texas in January 1943. Once there, he learned he was a candidate for pow exchange and, fearing the permanent break-up of his family, wrote for them to join him. Yaki recalls boarding a United Fruit Co. ship and arriving at the camp shortly before July 4, 1943. I didn't know how long we were going to be there, he says. I would always think, 'I didn't do anything wrong. My father didn't do anything wrong. Why should we be paying for something we weren't responsible for?'

But pay they did, along with other jlainternees. More than 800 of them were traded to Japan during the war and some 1,000 more went afterward, when the U.S. threatened to deport them as illegal aliens and Peru, citing their lack of passports, refused to let most of them back in. The legal quandary kept some jlas living in camps as late as 1948. An estimated 300 eventually won the right to remain in the U.S., most by relocating to Bridgeton, New Jersey, where a produce farm desperate for workers offered to take them on. But the stigma of being illegal aliens stayed on their immigration records.

The designation still rankles. How can they be illegal aliens when it is clear that the U.S. kidnapped them? asks Shimizu, whose father was an internee. The issue gained urgency in 1988, when the U.S. granted reparations to Japanese Americans under the Civil Liberties Act but specifically excluded anyone who was not an American citizen or permanent resident at the time of internment. Outraged, the jlas joined a class-action suit. In 1998 they won acknowledgement that injustices have been done and a payment of $5,000 each. It was a quarter of the amount granted to interned Japanese-Americans, and available only if funds remained after those had been paid, but most jlas accepted it. We began to think that we weren't so young anymore, says Yuriko Tanaka, 68, an ex-internee who accepted the offer.

Tomas Hayashi didn't. His 79-year-old father died two months before the court settlement. It's a shame, Hayashi says. It was the only thing he wanted. German Yaki also rejected the offer. It's an issue of honor and dignity, he says. It's a matter of principle. For them and for thousands of other jlas, the only choice is to cast their lot with Congressman Becerra and hope that after more than half a century, the U.S. will remember its unwilling guests.

Reported by Deb Brown and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles and Catherine Elton/Lima