Deportation affected ethnic Japanese in at least 12 Latin countries
BY TIM JOHNSON
SEABROOK, N.J. - It was a time of fear, anger and paranoia. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and U.S. war planners hatched a plan that in hindsight violated international law -- and perhaps even common American decency.
As war raged in the Pacific, U.S. officials wanted to pull ethnic Japanese out of Latin America, and use some of them for prisoner swaps with Tokyo. Washington, working with several Latin countries, seized thousands of ethnic Japanese and transported them on ships to U.S. shores, where they were held as pawns for prisoner exchanges.
''There's no other way to put it: They were kidnapped from Latin America,'' said Daniel M. Masterson, a historian at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
The U.S.-backed plan broke up families, and ruined businesses. Eventually, 2,264 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, mostly living in Peru, were brought to U.S. internment camps against their will. U.S. officials confiscated their passports, leaving them stateless. Many were barred from returning to Latin America when the war ended, their lives shattered.
The tale has pertinent echoes today as war drums sound anew and Americans look upon a different ethnic group with uneasiness, animosity and even paranoia.
''The parallels [with today] are so intriguing that they deserve a closer look,'' said Shawn McHale, an assistant professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.
Since the al Qaeda terror attacks 17 months ago, the United States has been grappling with issues relating to the detainment of suspected Muslim terrorists, more than 600 of whom have been sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where they may be held indefinitely. Moreover, U.S. officials have repatriated hundreds of illegal Arab immigrants.
Among those cautioning the United States to tread cautiously are descendants of the Japanese Latin Americans.
''We don't want the same kind of racial prejudice and wartime hysteria and lack of political leadership as happened in World War II. We don't want this to repeat to other communities now identified as being the enemy,'' said Grace Shimizu, director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project, based in the San Francisco Bay area.
FBI COMPILED LISTS
By the onset of the second world war, more than 30,000 Japanese immigrants lived in Peru and 190,000 in Brazil, many working as agricultural laborers.
Once war broke out, agents from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI compiled ''black lists'' of ethnic Japanese leaders to arrest and thwart a possible ''fifth column'' of Japanese militia arising in the hemisphere, perhaps threatening the Panama Canal.
Zealous U.S. officials, consumed by the catastrophic war that had erupted, hatched a far more ambitious plan, says author Thomas Connell, whose 2002 book, America's Japanese Hostages, recounts the wartime machinations.
''The plan was to create a Japanese-free hemisphere. This was the first step,'' says Connell, relying on extensive research of U.S. documents in the National Archives.
Peru was receptive to the plan, even enthusiastic. Many Peruvians had grown resentful of the success of the Japanese, who thrived as merchants and maintained a tightly knit community. Peruvian government officials banned ethnic Japanese from owning short-wave radios or telephones and required them to get safe conduct passes for any domestic travel.
Soon, the roundups began.
Ginzo Murono, the successful owner of two sporting-goods stores, was walking toward his Lima home on the night of Jan. 6, 1943.
''A Peruvian policeman approached him at the door,'' said Murono's son, Seiki, who now resides in San Francisco. ``The policeman said, `By order of the U.S. government, you are hereby arrested.
Like all those eventually sent to Crystal City, Texas, the site of an internment camp, the Murono family lost not only its right to live in Peru but all of its considerable assets there.
''They lost both stores. They lost their home. In a finger snap, they lost everything,'' said Seiki Murono, who was born in a U.S. internment camp.
Among those who aided the Peruvian authorities were Chinese immigrants, embittered by Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria and also deeply envious of ethnic Japanese success in Peru. As Japanese Peruvians shut down their stores and faced virtual ruin, others invaded their properties.
Teresa Masatani, a 62-year-old living modestly in this southern New Jersey town, where many Peruvian Japanese later settled, recalled the tales of her parent's privileged life in Lima.
''They were well-to-do because they talked about chauffeurs and governesses, and they sent us children to private schools,'' Masatani said. Peruvians who took over their properties were ``just greedy, greedy people.''
By mid-1942, the deportation and internments began, and eventually touched ethnic Japanese in at least 12 Latin countries. About 80 percent came from Peru, where police nabbed anyone appearing Japanese, regardless of whether they held Peruvian citizenship.
''They just indiscriminately rounded up Japanese on the streets to fill quotas,'' said Masterson, the naval academy academic.
Hiroshi Dodohara, a 64-year-old chemical engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, was 5 when his family was forced aboard the USS Cuba. His childhood memories of steaming through the Panama Canal and toward the U.S. Gulf Coast remain vivid.
''I remember being locked up in a little cabin. They wouldn't
let us out when we were in passage through the canal,'' Dodohara recalled.
His sensitive stomach later
intervened. ``The first time they served sauerkraut and frankfurters, I got very, very sick. I spent two weeks in the hospital.''
Because of that, the Dodohara family avoided a pesticide bath in New Orleans.
''They kind of bunched people in a warehouse, made them strip completely, and then sprayed them with DDT,'' a now-banned pesticide, Dodohara recalled.
A prisoner swap with Japan took place in September 1943. A Swedish vessel, the Gripsholm, carried 737 Japanese Latin Americans and 603 Japanese Americans from U.S. shores to Goa, a Portuguese colony in India. Japan turned over an equal number of U.S. citizens.
Other Latin American internees were sent straight back to Japan. But when the war ended, U.S. bureaucrats were faced with what to do with 350 Japanese Latin Americans with nowhere to go and no papers.
'The Peruvians said, `No way. We do not want them.' They refused them reentry,'' said Connell, the author and researcher. 'It was a mess. The State Department wanted to deport them. The Justice Department said, `You can't do that.' ''
Invited by the owner of the 15,000-acre Seabrook Farms here, 2,500 former ethnic Japanese internees settled in a labor camp, spending years toiling in the fields as they battled for legal recognition from the U.S. government.
A FORMAL APOLOGY
In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered a formal apology to 120,000 Japanese Americans and provided $20,000 to each person interned during the war. Japanese Latin Americans were excluded. In 1998, following a class-action lawsuit, the Justice Department offered the former Japanese Latin American internees $5,000 each and an apology.
So far, 645 internees from Latin America or their descendants have received $5,000.
''Nobody thinks the $5,000 was fair,'' said Shimizu, a leader of efforts for greater redress. ``Any reasonable person can see that there's a disparity here.''
Several members of Congress voice astonishment at the history of former Japanese Latin American internees, and say they are pushing for greater recognition.
'It's one of those stories where you say, `Nah, that couldn't have happened. You're pulling my leg,' '' said Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat.
Becerra, who has joined with Hawaiian Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye in sponsoring bills that in part would increase the compensation to $20,000 each, said he wants ``to help a group of people who were wronged.''
Scholars who have combed historical records say they have uncovered no evidence that ethnic Japanese in Latin America were plotting against U.S. interests during the war.
John Fuyuume, a Japanese American who directs a cultural and education center on the former internees who settled in Seabrook, cites that fact as a significant point of difference with the detention of Arab immigrants in the United States these days.
''Today, there's a lot of evidence that there's been espionage and sabotage,'' Fuyuume said. 'We need to remain very vigilant. But we shouldn't be vigilantes, like in World War II, where people said, `Send them all back!' There's got to be some middle ground.''