By Diana Morita Cole / Original to ScheerPost
In 2017, Isamu “Art” Shibayama testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, marking a milestone in a 74-year journey that began when the United States government kidnapped him and more than 2,260 persons of Japanese ancestry from Latin America during World War II.
When he was only 13, Art was forced at gunpoint to walk with his family onto a US transport ship anchored at the port of Callao, Peru. Until then, Art had led an idyllic existence, swimming in the ocean with his grandparents and attending a private school where he was driven in a chauffeured limousine. Art was unaware of the hostile economic and racial currents that buffeted his prosperous ethnic community in Lima. Four years before he and his family were taken hostage, riots against the Japanese in 1940 had resulted in the deaths of 10 Japanese Peruvians.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, racial hatred toward the Japanese increased. The Peruvian government used a bogus FBI blacklist comprised of the names of community leaders to target and arrest these prominent, law-abiding individuals. Among those listed was Yuzo, Art’s father, who had become an entrepreneur of note in Lima by turning his profits from operating a coffee shop into a prosperous shirt-manufacturing business. The United States, citing “hemispheric security,” rounded up persons of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries and shipped them to prison camps in the United States.
The Etolin in April 1942 was the first American ship to sail away from Peru with illegal human cargo. On board were Germans, Italians, and Japanese, the jetsam discarded by South America. As it sailed northward, The Etolin made two more stops: one in Ecuador to pick up Germans and Japanese and the second in Colombia to pick up Germans and Italians. The ship sailed on to Panama, where the deportees were temporarily detained and forced into involuntary servitude.
Art’s father, Yuzo, aware that his friends were being arrested and forced onto US transport ships, hid in a small Andean town whenever he heard a report of an American ship docking in Callao. For three years, Yuzo avoided capture until the authorities arrested his wife in order to lure him out of hiding. Unable to abandon her mother to the police, Art’s sister, Fusa accompanied her mother to jail where they were remanded until her father surrendered.
In 1944, Yuzo, his wife, and their six children, were herded aboard the Cuba by armed US soldiers. Their passports and other legal documents were seized as they embarked on a 21-day journey that would change them into stateless persons. Art and his father were confined to the lower deck and were unable to check on the status of other family members. Allowed occasionally to go on deck, Art saw the ship was a part of a convoy of four US destroyers and two submarines.
After stopping for supplies in Cuba, the Latin American captives reached New Orleans and were then arrested by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) after they were unable to produce legal documents. Marched to a warehouse, men, women, and children were ordered to strip and then sprayed with DDT.
Art and his family were whisked by shuttered train to Crystal City, Texas where the “family camp” administered by the Department of Justice was located. Also imprisoned in the Crystal City family camp were resident immigrants of German and Italian ancestry and their American-citizen children, along with Japanese Americans expelled from the West Coast and Hawaii. The United States government orchestrated the mass abduction of more than 6,000 Japanese, Germans, Italians, and Jews with the collaboration of 18 Latin American countries in exchange for trade agreements, military aid, and loans. Of these, 2,264 were ethnic Japanese—the vast majority citizens or legal immigrant residents of Peru.
Among these hostages were Art’s maternal grandparents, Kinzo and Misae Ishibashi. Art discovered through correspondence that his grandparents were being held separately at two internment sites in Texas. Both of these camps, Seagoville and Kenedy, were administered by the Department of Justice. For a decade, Art did not know what had become of his grandparents until he received a letter that explained they had been sent to Japan as part of a hostage exchange.
In 1946, a year after the war ended, Art’s family was released from the Crystal City internment camp. No longer of any value to its foreign policy stratagems, the United States pressured the Peruvian government to take back their former residents and citizens. But of the 2,264 taken captive, only 100 Japanese Peruvians were permitted the right of return. So, the United States ordered the remaining Japanese Latin Americans to be deported to Japan––a nation devastated by war, and a country many had never seen.
Rather than submit to deportation, Yuzo decided to remain in the United States. Through the humanitarian work of a civil rights lawyer, Wayne Collins, a parole program was initiated allowing the Japanese Latin Americans to stay in the US as long as they were able to secure a sponsor. And that sponsor, for many of the Japanese Latin Americans, turned out to be an opportunistic agricultural company in New Jersey, which was in need of cheap labor after the war.
In 1949, while still fighting deportation orders, Yuzo, along with other Japanese Peruvians, moved to Chicago. Finally allowed to access his funds in Peru, Yuzo bought an apartment building in the Uptown area of the city. His family worked hard to integrate themselves into the existing Japanese American community. Many Japanese Americans the Peruvians encountered were also former prisoners of the United States government—citizens and legal residents who had been forced out of their homes on the West Coast and incarcerated under FDR’s Executive Order 9066.
In 1952, still classified as an “illegal alien,” Art was drafted into the US military and sent off to Europe. While stationed in Germany, his superior officer encouraged Art apply for American citizenship, but the US government deemed him ineligible because he had entered the United States illegally.
Upon his return to Chicago, Art learned that his parents had become naturalized citizens under a process that became known as “retroactive permanent residency” when the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 was amended. But Art was denied this opportunity without explanation, although other Japanese Peruvians had been allowed to obtain citizenship after serving in the military. As well, Fusa, his sister, managed to attain citizenship through her marriage to an American.
The INS then reopened deportation proceedings against Art and his brothers because they were still classified as “illegal aliens.” They applied for a suspension of deportation or an alternative, which would allow them to leave the United States, apply for a visa, and then gain legal immigration status upon their re-entry into the country. On November 23, 1955, the INS decided to grant the three brothers relief by having them travel to Canada, apply for immigrant visas at the boarder, and then re-enter the US, thus finally permitting them permanent residence status in 1956.
During the filming of The Hidden Internment: The Art Shibayama Story (released in 2004), Art said, “It’s not like we wanted to come here. We were forced to come here. What the US government did was unjust!”
When the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed, the surviving Japanese Americans received an apology and monetary compensation from the United States government. However, the Act failed to address the extraordinary rendition and imprisonment of the Japanese Latin Americans.
In 1996, former Japanese Latin American internees and their families renewed their struggle for redress with the founding of a grassroots organization called the Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW for Japanese Latin Americans! And in 1999, the Mochizuki v. United States 43 Fed. Cl. 97 lawsuit resulted in a controversial settlement offered to former Japanese Latin American internees still alive in 1988.
Art opted out of the settlement, saying, “It was like a slap in the face.” He felt the $5,000 offer was hasty, demeaning, and disingenuous—without respect for the fundamental human rights violations he had sustained. These violations included kidnapping; rendering civilians stateless by confiscating their passports and identity papers; indefinite detention without charges and due process; forced labor; hostage-taking; hostage exchange; thrusting civilians into war zones; denial of right to return to countries of residency; infliction of emotional, mental and physical suffering; loss of property, economic and educational opportunities; ongoing failure to provide effective and meaningful redress and reparations.
In 2000, Art and his two brothers launched the Shibayama, et al. v. US lawsuit for their discriminatory exclusion from redress under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Federal Court of Claims dismissed the case and ruled that the Shibayama brothers were not eligible for restitution under the Civil Liberties Act because they were not American citizens or permanent resident aliens at the time of their internment. The court declined to address the crimes, humanitarian law, or civil rights violations from the original complaint, ruling that these claims were outside its jurisdiction.
After the failure of four more lawsuits and the collapse of two pieces of legislation, Art and his brothers filed Petition 434-03, Shibayama et al. v. United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States, stating crimes had occurred under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, an international human rights accord.
On March 21, 2017, fourteen years following the submission of his petition, Art Shibayama and his daughter presented his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, DC. He died a year later at 88 years of age.
The IACHR published a groundbreaking ruling on April 27, 2020, which stated:
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concludes that the state is responsible for the violation of Articles II (equality before the law) and XVIII (fair trial and effective remedy) of the American Declaration….And reiterates its recommendations to the USA to:
(1) make integral reparation for the human rights violations…including both the material and moral dimensions, and adopt measures for economic compensation and measures of satisfaction….
(2) ensure full disclosure of government information relating to the program of deportation and internment of Japanese Latin Americans during WWII, as well as relating to the fates of the individuals subject to this program.
According to this ruling, it is imperative under international law that the United States government give restitution for the human rights violations committed against Latin Americans who were abducted and interned during World War II. To that end, the Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW for Japanese Latin Americans! has posted an online petition, seeking signatures from the public. The petition requests President Biden and his administration comply with the decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.