Descendants search for lessons in the shameful treatment of Japanese-Latin Americans during WWII

Descendants search for lessons in the shameful treatment of Japanese-Latin Americans during WWII

Lima-born Joe Ozaki gestures at a photo taken shortly after his family was released from a World War II-era US detention centre where Latin Americans of Japanese descent were held.

(Donna Bryson)

Tamiye Ozaki, pregnant, speaking no English and with a toddler son in tow, made her way from Latin America to south Texas in 1943. She travelled by train and ship to be reunited with her businessman husband whom she had last seen when Peruvian authorities handed him over to the United States military in the middle of the night. The Ozakis were one of many families targeted because of their Japanese roots.

The warring United States and Japan were far from her home and her husband’s flooring business, both of which were lost when they left. Tamiye Ozaki’s journey ended at what had once been a migrant farmworkers’ settlement where Motoichi Ozaki, who had lived in Peru since 1936, was being held. Their baby, born premature, died soon afterward in the Crystal City Alien Detention Facility operated by US immigration authorities.

It is well-known that the US government rounded up some 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens living in the country after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They were forced from their homes on the West Coast of the US and elsewhere, and held without charge or due process in barracks-like camps in Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Manzanar in the California desert and eight other sites.

But this injustice also extended to Latin America, in what the US government has since acknowledged was a racially-biased and unjustified policy. Joe Ozaki is the toddler who came to Crystal City with his mother. He became a US Army doctor before retiring as a colonel and working as a civilian orthopaedic surgeon. He told Equal Times: “Even the Japanese-Americans [who were detained during the war], unless they happened to be at Crystal City, had no idea about it.” Japanese people began emigrating to Latin America in search of opportunity in the 19th century. Some went to Peru, Brazil and elsewhere to the south because to the north, racist laws (that were not reformed until 1965) barred them from the United States.

More than 2,000 Latin Americans of Japanese descent were brought to the United States to be incarcerated during the Second World War, mostly from Peru. Oregon lawyer Peggy Nagae has represented Japanese-Americans in court cases that highlight parallels to current debates about immigration, racism and limits on US power.

Nagae says the relatively small numbers of Japanese-Latin Americans who were held may be one reason the wider world knows little about them. The initial focus of calls for redress was on US citizens like her father, who was amongst the Japanese-American detainees. Now Nagae has joined Joe Ozaki and others in trying to draw attention to what the US government, working with authorities in Latin America, did beyond its borders.

Nagae, who is chief operating officer for a corporate consulting firm called White Men As Full Diversity Partners, told Equal Times that it is key for all Americans to understand that “what is done to the least of us, and how we treat the marginalised, reflects how humane we are as a country.”

A “long and ugly” history of anti-Asian agitation

In 1980, the US Congress established a national commission to study what followed a February 1942 order from President Franklin Roosevelt that declared the West Coast off limits to anyone of Japanese ancestry. In its 1983 report Personal Justice Denied, the commission said that intelligence officials were ignored when they said American security could be ensured by carefully watching suspicious individuals, without wholesale action against a class of people.

The commission also noted that people of German and Italian ancestry in the United States were not rounded up, and that the actions against those with Japanese roots followed a “long and ugly” history of anti-Asian agitation and legislation.

The idea that “ethnicity ultimately determines loyalty,” the report concluded, “runs counter to a basic premise on which the American nation of immigrants is built.”

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that authorised payments of US$20,000 to each then surviving US citizen or US permanent resident alien – categories that did not include most of the Japanese-Latin American detainees – who had been affected. Years later, as the result of a civil suit, payments of US$5,000 were authorised to the survivors of the Latin American deportations and detentions. The lag in time and discrepancy in payments still rankles with many.

Campaigner Grace Shimizu told Equal Times that what happened to her father Susumu and others brought from Peru constitutes “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Being treated on par to Japanese-Americans would be a step toward redress, she said. As would efforts to educate more Americans about what happened.

Shimizu, a Californian, started an oral history archive in 1991 to preserve stories like those of her father. She worked with filmmakers on a short documentary as part of a grassroots education effort aimed in part at assuring abuses are not repeated. “Why after all this time is the narrative still so narrow?” Shimizu wonders. “Now is the time to broaden it. Before these people are dead.”

Human consequences

Law professor Robert Chang, executive director of Seattle University’s Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, said massive extraterritorial roundups are unlikely to happen today. But Chang sees parallels to the “crude stereotyping” of the World War II era, for example, in the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Under the system, which civil liberties advocates protested, people from two dozen predominately Muslim countries were subjected to extra scrutiny upon arrival in the United States and had to register at designated offices as they left. NSEERS ended in 2011.

The Korematsu Center has joined Hispanic-, African- and Asian-American groups, alongside others, in legal challenges to the Trump administration’s attempts to, as federal judges have ruled, ban Muslims from the United States on security grounds. In addition to navigating travel bans, visitors fear extra delays because of extra scrutiny from border agents, the humiliation of being singled out and other “traveling while Muslim” problems.

US immigration reform in 1965 – coming at a time of major progress in protecting civil rights in America – eliminated both race-based citizenship rules that dated to the country’s founding and quotas on the numbers of immigrants from certain countries. But race, ethnicity and nationality remain a key part of the US immigration debate.

Today Latin Americans who, unlike the Japanese Latin Americans chose to come to the United States, are being vilified for arriving without legal documents. “We’ve been trying to remind the courts of the importance of paying attention to history and being sceptical when the government says, ‘Trust us,’” Chang said.

Chang’s think-tank is named after a Japanese-American who challenged what was happening during World War II, and his case was amongst several that went to the US Supreme Court. The high court in 1944 said detaining Japanese-Americans was a military necessity. Decades later, it emerged that the government kept from the court intelligence findings that only a small percentage of Japanese-Americans were considered security risks and the greatest threats among them were already contained.

William J. Aceves, a California Western School of Law professor, researched the Japanese-Latin American case as he explored ways the United States might make amends to innocent people who have been detained, threatened and even tortured outside America by the US or other governments seemingly acting on behalf of the United States because of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’. Aceves, who knows of no cases where such victims have received redress, told Equal Times that one lesson of the Japanese-Latin American history is that “justice can take time. It’s not a sprint.”

Remaking a life

The Ozakis, whose family had grown by two daughters born in Crystal City, were eventually able to contact distant Japanese-American relatives in Colorado. With sponsorship from those relatives, the Ozakis were able to leave the camp in 1946. “In Peru, he had a successful life,” Joe Ozaki said of his father. “There’s one picture I remember of him [in Peru]. He was standing in front of a big black Chrysler, wearing a suit and dark glasses.” In Colorado, Motoichi Ozaki worked at first as a labourer for an egg distributor. He also washed dishes at a Denver hotel. Five years’ savings allowed the elder Ozaki to buy a small grocery store that his wife helped him run. He ran a gardening business in addition to the store. He never reached the success he had built in Peru.

Joe Ozaki, who says he learned to work hard and not to complain from his father, graduated at the top of his Denver high school class in 1960. He earned a scholarship to New York’s Columbia University that was worth double his family’s annual income. Motoichi and Tamiye Ozaki had another son and daughter in Denver. Being born in the United States – even in Crystal City – gave Joe Ozaki’s siblings US citizenship, something he and his parents received from the late 1950s onwards.

Joe Ozaki said he has no memory of Crystal City. He never heard his parents talk about the camp. His mother died in 1991 and his father in 2002. Archivist Shimizu has experienced such reticence in her own family. She understands survivors’ urge to shield their children from bitterness and themselves from reliving trauma.

But she thinks it’s important that those who have experienced government abuse “are able to give voice to what happened. Putting their experience into words is part of the healing process. Or it can be.”

One of Joe Ozaki’s sisters interviewed their father in the 1990s. Joe Ozaki was able to refer to his sister’s record of his father’s reminiscences when, his interest sparked by a chance visit to Manzanar during a trip to California a few years ago, he began researching this chapter of his own life and of the world’s record of human rights abuses. He talks about the events to community groups. “I think that the main reason for telling my story,” he said, “is to let people know that freedom can be compromised at any time.”