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Forgotten Internees of WW II Want Aid

History: Japanese from Latin America were deported to U.S. internment camps. They seek reparations and an official apology.

September 21, 1997|EUN-KYUNG KIM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — During World War II, Alice Nishimoto and her family were forced from their home in Peru and herded into an American internment camp with thousands of other Japanese.

After the war, no one wanted them.

In Japan, they were considered American traitors. In the United States, they were illegal immigrants. Peru turned them away.

Half a century later, they feel that the U.S. government owes them--and about 300 other Japanese from Latin America--an apology and $20,000. Both were given to thousands of U.S. residents of Japanese descent detained during World War II.

But time is running out. The law that permits government payments expires in August 1998. And the survivors are dying.

"There are some people who believe this is a war crime," said Grace Shimuzi, director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and the daughter of a Latin American internee. "These people deserve an apology while they're still alive."

The little-known chapter of history began for Nishimoto in March 1944, at the height of the war, when armed Peruvian guards herded her family and hundreds of others onto a ship.

Nishimoto, who was 10, was confined for three weeks in a cramped cabin with her four sisters and their mother, who was eight months pregnant. Her father was kept with other men.

"People were saying they were going to take us to the Amazon jungle," recalled Nishimoto, now 63 and living in Los Angeles.

Instead, they landed in a New Orleans holding cell. Next, they were taken by train to an internment camp in the Texas desert and held until the war ended.

Nishimoto and her family were among about 3,000 people rounded up in 13 Latin American countries. The Peruvian government had been deporting residents of Japanese heritage until the U.S. government stepped in, hoping to exchange them for U.S. citizens held in Japan.

The exchange program didn't develop, so the Peruvians were housed in camps with thousands of Japanese Americans who had been rounded up as potential threats to national security.

While Japanese Americans received apologies and cash from the U.S. government in 1988, the Latin American detainees were ineligible because they were not U.S. citizens at the time they were held.

The distinction infuriates Nishimoto.

"They brought us here to this country. We didn't come here by choice," she said. "They took everything that we owned and then they said we came here illegally, with no passport. They arrested us and took our identities. It was a kidnap, mass kidnap."

Dede Greene, who heads the Justice Department's Office of Redress Administration, said only a congressional act could change the 1988 reparation law to include the Latin Americans.

"Every single day that passes is a day that another person who suffered this may not survive to see justice," said Robin Toma, an attorney who last year filed a class-action lawsuit for Japanese Latin Americans.

Several of Nishimoto's siblings are already dead, and many of Art Shibayama's relatives died without seeing reparations.

Shibayama was 13 when his family was shipped from Lima, Peru, where they lived an affluent life, to the Texas camp.

After the war, Shibayama, now 67 and living in San Jose, Calif., said his family was turned away from Peru and eventually moved to Chicago, where they continually fought deportation.

Shibayama finally received his citizenship in 1970.

Life after the war was just as difficult for Nishimoto and her family, who were not welcome in Peru or the United States.

The family moved to Japan to live with relatives in the atomic bomb-scarred Hiroshima, where Nishimoto says she was unhappy and ridiculed.

"They used to treat us like Americans, said that we were traitors, we were Yankees," she said.

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