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Unsettling History 

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

Wednesday, Sep 29 1999
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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.

"I'm angry with the U.S. government because if I had stayed in Peru, I could have had my education," Shibayama says, "I could have taken over my father's business. I would not have had to suffer."

Shibayama had to jump through several INS hoops before finally securing permanent resident status in 1956, and full citizenship in 1970. Interestingly, his sister and mother were both instantly granted permanent resident status retroactive to the day they landed on U.S. turf.

But the Shibayama lawsuit is not simply another personal squabble with the INS over immigration policy -- Art and his brothers have grander motivations. Mainly, they believe that past efforts to settle with the internees have been insincere and compromising.


The 1988 Civil Liberties Act awarded $20,000 and a letter of apology to each Japanese-American who had been interned during World War II, but did not recognize noncitizen internees such as Japanese-Latin Americans. People like the Shibayamas were not offered compensation until 1998 when the Mochizuki vs. the United States lawsuit was settled. Under the Mochizuki settlement agreement, the U.S. government was supposed to give Japanese-Latin American internees a letter of apology and $5,000 each -- if funds were available. In exchange, those who accepted the agreement signed waivers agreeing that they would not sue the government again for redress.

As the Shibayama brothers saw it, the waivers would forever end their pursuit of more meaningful redress. All three opted out of the settlement.

"If we accepted, then it's like saying the American government didn't do it," Shibayama insists. "We don't want the government to slide."

Indeed, the U.S. government has never officially admitted wrongdoing in the Japanese-Latin American people-trafficking scheme. The letter of apology sent to those accepting the Mochizuki settlement is disturbingly vague. Only a press release from President Clinton in June 1998 mentions "Japanese Latin American" and "internment" in the same sentence.

And though he is seeking monetary relief of an unspecified amount, Shibayama explains that filing his lawsuit is about justice, not a check from the government.

In response to the suit, the U.S. is arguing that it has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued without its consent. Department of Justice lawyers are also trying to move the case into the Federal Court of Claims in Washington, D.C., arguing that the Shibayamas are simply seeking damages for redress money they never received. A decision on whether the move will be granted is expected from U.S. District Judge Charles A. Legge this fall.

"The government sees the Mochizuki settlement and expects us to walk away," says Grace Shimizu, founder of the Bay Area-based Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project. "They say it's because we want more money, and they reduce it to that. We are trying to say that there is more. Is money the standard of what redress should be?"

In addition to being the first internment redress case to introduce international human rights laws into its argument, the Shibayama case also demands full disclosure, through discovery, of any documents even remotely related to Japanese-Latin American internment. For the Shibayamas, full disclosure is a way of piecing together their past, and preventing their experience from fading from common historical memory.

"People like Art need to know what happened in their lives so they can see their lives in the right perspective," explains Karen Parker, the Shibayamas' attorney. "They don't want someone telling them that something was other than it really was."

When it comes to full disclosure, the Shibayamas are not even sure what kind of documents such an effort would produce -- if any. Still, they are convinced that the U.S. and Latin American governments are concealing information that would help them come to terms with the injustices dealt to them during World War II.

"We still don't know the history of why," attorney Parker says. "Who was responsible? The key questions have not been answered. It could be classified for national security reasons, but the U.S. government is just in national embarrassment mode."

According to Parker and Shimizu, it is still unclear how Japanese-Latin Americans were selected for abduction; many were spared for unknown reasons. What happened to the abductees' confiscated property also remains a mystery. Furthermore, the exact nature of the agreement between the U.S. and the Latin American countries is also unknown. It is generally understood to be a nebulous oral pact.

But there is no shortage of public records on the situation, difficult as they may be to access. C. Harvey Gardiner, who wrote the first book on the subject in the '80s, used INS documents and interdepartmental memos of several government agencies, and even obtained the declassification of many FBI records for the book.

Shibayama and others in the Japanese-Latin American community, however, possess a conspiracy-theory ardency about the existence of unreleased official documents.

"When you're fishing with too small of a hook in too big of a pond, it's too hard to file for a Freedom of Information Act," Parker says. "You keep coming back empty-handed. Full disclosure through discovery is a useful way to see what is out there. We want full disclosure so that [these human rights violations] will never happen again."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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