Japanese internees from Peru seek justice
Thousands became pawns of America during World War II
When Art Shibayama was 13 years old, his family led a comfortable life in Lima, Peru -- his father a successful businessman and textile importer.
But their lives took a drastic turn during World War II, when U.S. soldiers forced them out of their home in March 1944.
Armed with machine guns, soldiers stood by as the Shibayamas and about 350 other Japanese-Peruvian families boarded an Army ship en route to New Orleans.
Once in the United States, they were sprayed with insecticide in a large warehouse before being transported to Crystal City, Texas, by train.
For 2 1/2 years, Shibayama spent his days in an internment camp surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, armed soldiers keeping constant watch.
That was some 60 years ago, but Shibayama, now 76, has not forgotten the indignities of being treated like a prisoner. Today, he continues to seek justice from the U.S. government.
"Something like that shouldn't happen," he said in a phone interview from his home in San Jose, Calif.
Shibayama and more than 100 people -- some who are former internees and others who are family members of internees from Peru -- will attend the 2006 Peru Kai Reunion at the Pacific Beach Hotel in Waikiki tomorrow to Sunday.
This is the 12th reunion held for former internees to allow them to reconnect with each other.
From 1941 to 1945 the U.S. government, under agreements with Latin American governments, seized 2,264 ethnic Japanese and brought them to the United States in order to exchange them for American citizens held captive in Japan. Of that figure, about 800 internees were deported to Japan.
After Shibayama and his family were released from Crystal City, they attempted to return to Peru but were denied entry.
They moved to New Jersey and later to Chicago, where Shibayama was drafted by the Army. During his service, he applied for permanent residency but was denied after he and other Japanese Latin Americans were stamped illegal aliens.
"When you're brought here forcibly, how can that be illegal?" asked Shibayama. "We didn't want to come here in the first place."
Eventually, he became an American citizen in 1970.
In June 1988 former Japanese-American internees were each awarded $20,000 and given a letter of apology. But the Japanese Latin Americans were excluded from the redress because they were not considered citizens at the time of internment, Shibayama said.
A decade later, the government agreed to pay Japanese Latin Americans $5,000 each and awarded them a letter of apology.
Shibayama and his two brothers, Kenannichi and Takeshi, refused to accept the money, saying that the redress letter did not specify wrongdoing against Japanese Latin Americans.
In 1999 they sued the government, but their case was denied. In 2003 the Shibayamas filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which promotes and protects human rights.
Grace Shimizu, director for the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and coordinator for the Campaign for Justice: Redress Now for Japanese Latin Americans, said the commission accepted the petition and is expected to make a decision sometime this month on whether to recommend appropriate remedies for the Shibayama brothers.
"Our hope is that, at minimum, that they are granted the same redress (as Japanese Americans), apology letter, full disclosure and compensation," Shimizu, 53, said.
Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye introduced legislation to create a commission to investigate how the government affected Japanese Latin Americans who were unjustly confined to internment camps. The commission will also make recommendations on appropriate remedies.
Japanese Latin Americans were not involved in the war, Shimizu said. They faced deportation, internment and hostage exchange. Some also faced forced labor. "These are all war crimes," said Shimizu, whose father, Susumu Shimizu, was also confined at the Crystal City camp.
In 1991, Shimizu attended a Peru Kai reunion when she and others realized that many former internees were dying. That year, the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project was established to preserve the history of the former internees and to educate the public.
"This is a little-known episode in which a government committed war crimes against men, women and children," Shimizu said.
Through the project, Shimizu said she learned more about her father, bringing the two closer. He died in 2004.
Elsa Kudo recalled being emotionally scarred after her family was forced to leave their home in January 1944.
"I remember feeling very dark," said Kudo, who was 7 when her father, Seiichi Higashide, a successful dry-goods businessman, was jailed.
Six months later, Higashide reunited with his wife and five children in Crystal City.
"You come from a pleasant, peaceful and comfortable life to having nothing. Everything is gone," said Kudo, now 70, who lives in Ala Moana. Her father died in July 1997.
Upon release from Crystal City, "we were treated like enemies by the general public," Kudo said.