Japanese Latin American life under U.S. policies before and during World War II
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| This article is part of Congresspedia’s coverage of Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin Americans and U.S. Policy During World War II
The series was part of the Student Editor Program - Asian Pacific Americans and American Public Policy.
Public knowledge of the U.S. government's actions concerning Japanese Latin Americans became much more widespread when the Mochizuki v. United States class action lawsuit was filed in 1996 calling for redress of the internment of Japanese Latin Americans. Information finally came out that the U.S. government, in league with various Latin American governments and especially Peru, kidnapped, transported and held prisoner over 2,000 Japanese Latin Americans during World War II.
Life for Japanese Latin Americans prior to World War II
From 1899 to the 1930s there was a major labor migration from Japan to Latin America. In the 1930s trade increased, leading to increased Japanese immigration to Latin America.
A main factor in the political situation of the Japanese in Latin America was determined by the role they played in the symbiotic economic relationship between Japan and Latin American countries. One of the main reasons such a large number of Japanese migrated to Latin America was that Latin America needed workers for its economic boom while Japan had excess workers and needed the remittances to help with its own economic crisis.
Japan was in an economic crisis after World War I and encouraged its citizen to work overseas. In 1924, however, the U.S. passed the Immigration Act, closing off its borders to most Japanese workers.  Immigration then shifted to Latin America as the Japanese already there welcomed their countrymen and helped them adapt. The Japanese government further facilitated emigration by paying the expenses of outsourced workers - in 1934 this amounted to a subsidy of 1300-1400 yen per family. As the Japanese in Latin America prospered they developed a separate society from the Latin American culture and helped boost the economy of Japan through their remittances. Japanese businessman were highly regarded as individuals in Latin America, but the exclusiveness of their group did arouse suspicion.
In 1898 Peru was experiencing an economic boom and encouraged workers from Europe to immigrate met with resistance as countries like Italy encouraged their citizens not to go. Japan, which needed to outsource workers during its economic crisis, encouraged its citizens to emigrate and Peru accepted them. Most Japanese worked six-month to three-year terms and 60% of the initial workers married into the culture. As the Peruvian economy began to decline and unemployment rose in the 1930s, however, the native population grew upset by the success of Japanese businesses and there were anti-Japanese riots. Economic and social pressures eventually spurred the Peruvian government to deport Japanese. It also began to get loans from the U.S. government and received pressure from the U.S. in regard to the Japanese immigrants.
Arrest, deportation and internment during World War II
Many Latin American countries did not harbor the same animus towards their Japanese immigrants that the U.S. government held until the Pearl Harbor bombing. Panama was the only country that had investigated the Japanese prior to the attack. The U.S. government, however, had been making plans regarding the Japanese Latin Americans long before then.
In 1936, the U.S. Chief of Military Intelligence, George Patton, came up with a plan to arrest and intern Japanese Latin Americans were were considered most useful to American interests or those who, due to their position and influence in the Japanese community, could serve U.S. political interest by remaining as hostages.
In the mid-1940’s Assistant Chief of Staff Brigadier General Shedd composed a memo that discussed the internment of "alien enemies" in case of hostile actions. The alien enemies were to be taken to a detention camp to await investigation and questioning. If an individual was found guilty of enemy activity then they would be sent to the U.S. Marshal and placed in an interment camp under the control of US military authorities.
Months before the Pearl Harbor attack, Panama declared war on the Axis Powers and the FBI helped Panamanian officials round up all citizens of Japanese descent that were "potentially dangerous" and placed them in internment camps. The Japanese lost their citizenship rights.
Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, Peru began cooperating with the U.S. on investigations of the Japanese. Within two days of the attack, all Peruvian business owned or run by people of German, Italian or Japanese ancestry were blacklisted. The Peruvian government accepted a U.S. proposal for all Axis officials to be deported through the U.S. Echoing the 1936 Patton plan, the proposal was then expanded to cover non-officials as well, including civilian men, women and children who were of Japanese descent. Many of the women and children left to be reunited with the men in their family, but many were simply kidnapped by Peruvian police and handed over to U.S. officials. Officials in Peru were further ordered not to issue any visas to Japanese Peruvians and anyone who had a passport or other documents relating to entry to foreign countries was detained and their documents confiscated.
A few months later, nine other Latin American countries started participating in the investigations. 2,300 Japanese Latin Americans were eventually detained and deported to the U.S., 1,800 of them from Peru. They were detained and questioned against their will, often in violation of their civil rights.
The detainees were stripped of their passports upon deportation and were labeled "illegal aliens" when placed in the internment camps. They were no longer citizens of any country: the U.S., Peru, Japan or any other country.
After they were stripped of documentation, most of the Japanese were shipped to the U.S., usually to San Francisco or New Orleans. When they arrived, they were then turned over to U.S. officials who then declared them to be in the country illegally.
Hostage exchanges with Japan
Purported reasons for these actions by U.S. officials included the large number of American hostages in Japanese occupied territories. There were about 3300 American citizens still in China, 3000 in the Philippines and 700 in Japan. The officials hoped to exchange the detained Japanese Latin Americans for these hostages and American POWs.
Two major hostage exchanges took place in 1942 and 1943, in which over 500 Japanese Latin Americans were exchanged for American hostages. The U.S. tried to organize a third exchange, but the Japanese government refused after discovering evidence of the kidnapping and harsh treatment of the Japanese Latin Americans in U.S. custody. The remaining hostages were kept in camps without due process rights until after the war ended.
After the war
Seven months after Japan's surrender, the Japanese Peruvians who were still hostage were informed that, because there was no clear evidence they posed a threat to the security and welfare of the U.S., they would no longer be held captive. But even though the U.S. Justice Department recognized that it was illegal to forcibly deport the Japanese Peruvians to Japan, it refused to give them permission to stay in the U.S. Because of this, about 700 Japanese had no choice but to allow themselves to be deported to Japan willingly.
The U.S.’s disregard of international law was fueled by the racism of many Americans toward the Japanese, citizens or not. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to the Nisei - the second generation Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens by birth - as "Japanese people from Japan who are citizens."
This was reflected in a war-time memo, where one U.S. State Department official noted that the U.S. had a large number of Japanese Americans serving in the Army, who they couldn’t righteously kick out of the United States after they had fought for it. But he proposed looking for a solution to the problem using the ideas of another official:
“The Attorney General is reported to have said recently that he had a formula under one of our statutes by which a native-born Japanese or one naturalized could be divested of his American citizenship - thus making him eligible for deportation... I think the far larger part of official sentiment is to do something so we can get rid of these people when the war is over. But sentiment is liable to wane if the authorization measures are not adopted before the war ends. We have 110,000 of them in confinement here now - and that is a lot of Japs to contend with in postwar days.”
None of the kidnapped Japanese Latin Americans, even the ones that became U.S. citizens, got the redress eventually given to Japanese Americans under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This was because that Act limited redress to people that, at the time of internment, were already American citizens or permanent residents.
One effect of these events was that the drafters of the 1949 Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, said they were influenced by the events of World War II to implement specific deportation prohibitions that had been considered unnecessary before, because it had been assumed that "civilized" nations wouldn’t resort to those kinds of tactics.
Articles and resources
- "World War II Internment Camps," The Handbook of Texas Online.
- "The Enemy Alien Files," The American Immigration Law Foundation, October 7 - November 27, 2002.
- "Campaign for Justice," Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, February 2003.
- A U.Md. login-required Proquest article
- Zakaria Ajmal, "History Lesson: Abduction by the US," Zack Vision, January 5, 2003.