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An Enduring Indignity : Japanese Latin Americans Interned During War Still Seek Redress

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are certain childhood memories that still haunt Phil Shigekuni, like the time his mother and grandparents were forced to sell nearly everything they owned in their Los Angeles home, and when he was awakened at night by the sound of people urinating into pails at the Santa Anita racetrack.

For the North Hills resident, both are vivid reminders of the U.S. government’s imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, and how he and others fought for years before finally winning a formal apology and repayment.

Now Shigekuni is at it again, this time trying to rally local support for Japanese Latin Americans fighting for their own apology and redress.

Like their counterparts in North America, about 2,200 Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry were detained during the war and sent to internment camps in the United States. But they have yet to be compensated, an enduring indignity that has become the subject of a pending federal lawsuit.

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“We’re doing this to show support and to try and educate the community about what happened to these Japanese Latin Americans,” said Shigekuni, a retired high school guidance counselor who helped organize a gathering Sunday at the West Valley United Methodist Church in Chatsworth. “We also want to find out what the Japanese American community in the Valley can do to help.”

About 70 people showed up to hear the story of Japanese Latin Americans during a two-hour presentation sponsored by the church and the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

After dining on bento-box lunches, they watched a video showing recent news reports on the Japanese Latin Americans and their fight for redress. And they listened to former internees Alicia Nishimoto and Carmen Mochizuki talk about their lives before and after they were abducted from their homes in Peru and deported to the United States.

Nishimoto recalled the affluent lifestyle she and her family had enjoyed in Peru, where her father ran a cotton plantation. She then described the day U.S. soldiers showed up at her front door.

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“In that one day everything was taken away from us,” Nishimoto said. “Our life was destroyed.”

It was a scenario played out in hundreds of Latin American households. Apparently perceived as a threat to U.S. national security after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Latin Americans were whisked away from their homes by U.S. soldiers in 13 countries, although the largest number came from Peru. They were boarded on ships, where they were forced to undress and were sprayed with DDT.

Once in the United States, most spent the war years in an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas. The abductions, ordered by the Franklin Roosevelt administration, were carried out with the cooperation of the victims’ home governments.

After years of pressure and lobbying by Japanese Americans, the U.S. government formally apologized in 1988 and offered redress payments to camp survivors. But when the Japanese Latin Americans applied for redress under the 1988 reparations law, most of them were told they were ineligible for an apology because they were not legal U.S. residents when they were abducted and brought to this country.

Other subgroups also were denied redress but have since succeeded in winning apologies and payments.

Such was the case last October for 125 former internees, who were originally deemed ineligible for redress because they and their families returned to Japan during the war. The government later changed its policy and granted reparations to members of the group who were minors at the time.

Last August, Nishimoto and Mochizuki filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, demanding that they, along with former internees who now live in Peru, Japan and the United States, be granted the same status as interned Japanese Americans. A hearing is scheduled next month.

The Japanese Latin Americans and their supporters--which include the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project--have also launched the Campaign for Justice to put pressure on the government.

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Across the globe, participants have started a letter-writing campaign aimed at President Clinton, who they hope will intervene and declare the Latin Americans eligible for reparations.

So far the international effort has collected more than 2,000 letters that members will deliver to Clinton next month, when they travel to Washington to lobby Asian American members of Congress--who they hope in turn will pressure the president--according to Ayako Hagihara of the Campaign for Justice.

In California in recent months, the group has made presentations at college campuses from San Diego to Westwood to rally support. On Thursday, a fund-raiser is planned at the Don Felix restaurant in Los Angeles, where supporters will share Japanese Peruvian food and music.

During Sunday’s presentation, Akemi Kaylend Knight, president of the Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, presented Hagihara with a check for $500 on behalf of her organization. Hagihara’s group also received $300 from members of the church. Later, dozens of people signed letters urging Clinton to intervene.

Shigekuni said listening to Nishimoto and Mochizuki brought back old memories and feelings of when he, his friends and family were rounded up and interned. This month marks the 55th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military evacuation of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to 10 internment camps in seven states.

Like scores of other internees, Shigekuni’s family sold nearly all of their belongings, then waited six months at a makeshift detention center at the Santa Anita racetrack, where the sound of people urinating in pails became ingrained in his memory.

Only later did Shigekuni, who was 8 at the time, learn that fear of being caught in the glare of searchlights drove many of his fellow Japanese Americans to use pails instead of restrooms to relieve themselves. From Santa Anita, the family was sent to the Amache internment camp in Colorado.

“We suffered a great injustice, but theirs was just so much more compounded because it went on and on,” Shigekuni said. “To this day it continues to be unfinished business.”

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