In March 1944, 13-year-old Isamu Carlos Arturo Shibayama, his parents and five siblings were taken from their home in Peru and shipped to New Orleans on an American troop ship. Stripped of their identity papers, the Shibayamas were admitted to the United States as “illegal aliens” and sent to a prison camp in Texas, where they would spend the next 2 1/2 years.
Their only crime was being ethnic Japanese.
Shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the forced relocation and imprisonment of 120,000 ethnic Japanese in America, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens.
At the same time, the administration was orchestrating another, less well-known human rights travesty: the roundup of innocent men, women and children of Japanese descent from across Latin America. Part of a pact designed to secure America’s southern border, this covert program provided the U.S. government with hostages to exchange for American civilians held by the Japanese.
The United States has never taken full responsibility for this egregious abuse, which also led to the seizure of thousands of Germans and Italians living in Latin America.
On Tuesday, Isamu, who now goes by Art, will get a shot at redressing that injustice. The 86-year-old retired gas station owner and U.S. Army veteran from San Jose is scheduled to appear before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington. The commission is considering a petition from him and his brothers accusing the U.S. government of violating international law when it seized their family.
Paul Mills, the attorney representing the Shibayamas, sees frightening echoes of this government overreach today in the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and visitors from Muslim countries. Like the Shibayamas during World War II, Mills says, thousands of people could be “caught in the gears” of Trump’s actions “without any evidence that they … were a threat” to the United States.
At the outset of World War II, more than a dozen Latin American leaders signed onto the security pact with the U.S., but none was more enthusiastic than Peruvian President Manuel Prado. He welcomed the opportunity to rid his country of Japanese immigrants, whose prosperity, many Peruvians felt, had come at their expense.
By the time the program ended in the fall of 1944, more than 2,200 Japanese Latin Americans had been uprooted from their homes — 80% from Peru. They included shopkeepers and priests, plantation workers and barbers. None ever was found guilty of espionage.
Art’s father, Yuzo Shibayama, was a successful tailor in Lima. He lost everything when he was deported. His grandparents were among more than 800 Japanese Latin Americans exchanged for American civilians during the war. Nearly a thousand more were shipped to Japan later. Only a last-minute legal challenge kept Art’s immediate family from that fate. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they were allowed to become U.S. citizens.
In 1988, President Reagan signed a law extending a formal apology and $20,000 in reparations to the ethnic Japanese who were interned during the war. But because the Shibayamas had been designated “illegal aliens,” they weren’t eligible. In the 1990s, they were part of a group of Japanese Latin Americans who sued the U.S. government and eventually were offered a minimal apology and $5,000 each. Art and his brothers refused the paltry settlement, calling it an insult. The apology, Art said, wasn’t specific, it could have been handed out to anyone on the street; it wasn’t even on presidential letterhead.
The Shibayama brothers turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2003, only after a separate family lawsuit had been rejected by U.S. courts on technical grounds. The commission can act as a mediator or refer cases to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but it has no authority to issue penalties.
Some argue the commission is a paper tiger. It certainly cannot restore Art’s childhood innocence or allow him to say goodbye to his grandparents, whom he never saw again. But as an arm of one of the region’s oldest regional alliances, the commission has the power to shame the U.S. and demand a proper apology and fair restitution for those who were imprisoned. “It’s about time,” Art told me.
If the commission finds for the Shibayamas, it also will send a strong message to the Trump administration: Even decades after the fact, the U.S. government can be forced to answer for violations of rights that are the fundamental building blocks of American society.
Evelyn Iritani, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, is working on a book about the exchange of civilian hostages between the U.S. and Japan during World War II.
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