Unsettling History

Kidnapped and interned during World War II, Japanese brothers intend that their story not fade away

Art Shibayama settles into a mahogany chair at his dining room table, slowly placing his hands face down on the white, lace tablecloth. Though it faces a busy San Jose street, the Shibayama home is surprisingly peaceful. Its décor, a tasteful arrangement of Peruvian metalwork and Japanese pottery, reflects Shibayama's demeanor: neat, calm, precise.

But even in his contagiously tranquil home, Shibayama, a man of simple speech, remains angry and indignant. A Japanese-Peruvian-American, Shibayama was interned in Crystal City, Texas, during World War II. For decades since, he has battled the U.S. government, seeking a full explanation of why he was abducted from Callao, Peru, as a child, and asking for an acceptable public apology.

Last February, Shibayama and his two brothers, who now live in Chicago, filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, accusing the federal government of violating their civil rights and international humanitarian law. The lawsuit is an attempt to keep open a chapter of U.S. history that the government has been trying for years to close.

Shibayama and his brothers are only a few of over 2,000 Japanese-Latin Americans who were arrested in foreign countries during World War II and brought against their will to the United States. They were held, along with 120,000 Japanese-Americans, in internment camps. While American internees were detained for "national security" purposes, Japanese-Latin Americans were used as human bargaining chips for possible POW swaps with Japan.

The swapping arrangement was unveiled in 1981, when historian C. Harvey Gardiner published a book on the subject. Still, few people know that the U.S. orchestrated the arrest of Japanese-Latin Americans with 13 other governments, and paid to bring them to U.S. camps. With his lawsuit, Shibayama hopes to raise public knowledge of the experience. Already, he makes the rounds at Bay Area colleges, high schools, and churches, telling audiences his strange and frustrating story.

The tales of interned Japanese-Latin Americans like Shibayama are becoming increasingly rare, with only 800 known to still be alive. The Shibayama brothers, along with 14 others, are the last of a small, aging group that has rejected previous official offers to settle their claims, and remains determined to wrest full redress from the government.

The U.S. government began trying to atone for this disgraceful chapter of history in 1988, when President Reagan signed legislation that offered money and a letter of apology to Japanese-American internees. Though more than 80,000 former internees have accepted -- and even celebrated -- the government's offerings, many within the Japanese-American community remain dissatisfied. They argue that a check and a form letter do not adequately address the suffering and humiliation they endured. The redress effort initially was directed at American citizens of Japanese ancestry, not people like Shibayama, who were not considered citizens during their internment.

Japanese-Latin American internees became legally recognized as valid recipients of redress only recently, and about 145 have received money and a letter (more than 500 are awaiting payment), including the Shibayamas' sisters.

But the Shibayama brothers say they decided to sue on their own, in part because they don't want their stories to remain buried in dark vaults of the National Archives, unknown to the American public.

"Nobody knows about this [Japanese-Latin American internment] unless they know someone, or had a friend that was interned," Shibayama says. "I want people to know. I want to make the government understand that they made a mistake."


The eldest of five children, Art Shibayama was only 13 when U.S. soldiers came to his Callao, Peru, home to arrest his father. The Shibayamas were told simply that a U.S. military transport ship would come for them and others in a week. The whole family made the cramped 21-day journey to Texas, where they were interned at an INS camp.

Shibayama doesn't remember much about being forced from his home - he's blocked it out, he says. His only memory is the ship, the Cuba, and how he was one of the youngest boys included on the all-male lower deck.

Once they reached American shores, Shibayama and everyone on that ship was tagged as an illegal alien. Shibayama was too young to have a passport, but those who did had them taken away before boarding the boat in Peru.

The U.S. brought him here, and then branded him an illegal alien, a taint Shibayama continues to fight to this day. Though he is now a full-fledged American citizen, the words "illegal alien" remain on his permanent records -- one of the things he hopes to correct with his lawsuit.

"We weren't sneaking into the country," Shibayama says indignantly. "When the government comes in and brings you in, how can they classify us as illegal? We didn't want to come here."

Though the Shibayamas tried to return to Peru, they were continually denied entry by the Peruvian government, and finally settled in Chicago. Shibayama, who quit school to help support the family, loaded trucks and fixed cars. He moved to California with his wife 28 years ago to be near his three sisters, and only recently sold the Shell gasoline station he owned and operated in San Jose. Though he has fared well, raising two college-educated children in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood, Shibayama is still angry about the opportunities that internment cost him.

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