Justice sought anew for internees
By Dennis Camire
Gannett News Service
By Dennis Camire
WASHINGTON — Even though only 6 years old at the time, Elsa Kudo remembers the day in January 1944 when detectives arrested her father in their home in Ica, Peru, a first step toward wartime internment in the United States.
The family had just returned from a picnic when there was a knock at the door.
"They said, 'We're sorry, but we have to take you, on orders from the United States,' " recalled Kudo, 69, who lives with her husband, Eigo, in Honolulu.
Her father, Seiichi Higashide, was one of about 2,300 Latin Americans of Japanese descent picked up in their home countries, stripped of their passports and taken to internment camps in the United States during World War II.
Now, congressional lawmakers, including Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, and Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., are launching a new effort, calling for the creation of a commission to investigate what happened and recommend remedies if any wrongs occurred.
"Japanese Latin Americans not only were subjected to gross violations of civil rights in the United States by being forced into internment camps ... but additionally, they were victims of human rights abuses merely because of their ethnic origin," Becerra said.
About 800 of them were used in prisoner exchanges with Japan, but most languished in the camps until after the war. In many cases, detainees' families moved to the camps to be with them.
Higashide, who owned dry goods stores in Ica, was taken to Lima and soon after shipped from Callao, Peru, to the United States, where he was interned in Crystal City, Texas.
Months later, Kudo's mother received a telegram from him asking them to join him.
"Even though we may perish, it will be together. But, we may live together," he wrote.
Kudo said her mother was confused because her father had warned her not to sell the family business, which she had to do to leave. "But since this telegram was the newest news, she said, 'Let's be together with Papa.' "
The family — mother; five children, including an infant; two grandparents; and an aunt — boarded a U.S. transport ship and sailed to be with him.
Kudo said the move was devastating economically.
"We were treated unfairly," said Kudo, a retired grammar school teacher. "We are people whose lives were turned upside down and left with nothing. We didn't have a penny."
Eight of every 10 interned Japanese Latin Americans came from Peru, but others lived in Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
When the war ended, many of them wanted to go back to their homes. Most found they couldn't because their home countries wouldn't accept them.
The United States deported a large group of them to war-ravaged Japan, which some had never seen.
The Higashide family stayed in the Texas camp until 1946, resisting U.S. efforts to deport them to Japan. Peru refused to take them, so they accepted an offer to become laborers for a New Jersey company.
In 1959, Kudo married Eigo, who also had been interned. Her father died in 1997 at 88.
The issue of Japanese Latin Americans interned in the United States surfaced in official Washington in 1982 in an appendix to a report on the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants, said that, at first, the story of the Japanese Latin Americans appeared "unfathomable" to him.
"But indeed, it happened," he said. "It is part of our national history, and it is a part of the living history of the many families whose lives are forever tied to internment camps in our country."
Daniel M. Masterson, a historian at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said the United States' action was a "very significant injustice" to Japanese Latin Americans.
The 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were interned in the United States during World War II received a formal apology and $20,000 each in reparations in the 1980s from the U.S. government.
But that action didn't include the Japanese Latin Americans, who sued the government in the late 1990s. The Clinton administration offered them $5,000 each and a letter of apology.
Many accepted, but some remained dissatisfied, including Art Shibayama of San Jose, Calif., who as a 13-year-old was brought to the United States from Lima in March 1944 to be interned in a Texas camp.
"The (Clinton) letter of apology doesn't say anything about our being brought here and that we were Japanese Peruvian," he said. "It doesn't even say 'Japanese' in the letter. I want them to apologize correctly."
Shibayama and his two brothers have taken their grievances to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of the Organization of American States, as a way to hold the U.S. government accountable for its failure to provide redress.
Reach Dennis Camire at firstname.lastname@example.org.