The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 19           May 15, 2006  
U.S. gov’t interned Japanese
from Latin America in WWII
(Fourth in a series)
One little known chapter in the history of U.S. immigration policy was the U.S. rulers’ abduction and incarceration of Japanese living in Latin America during World War II. In the United States, Washington imprisoned 112,000 people of Japanese descent in concentration camps during the war. In Canada, 23,000 Japanese living in British Columbia, three-fourths of whom were Canadian citizens, were also rounded up.

Governments friendly to Washington throughout Latin America joined in. Nearly 2,300 people from 13 of these countries were seized and imprisoned in U.S. Justice Department internment camps. Many of them were held in Crystal City, Texas. About 1,800, or 80 percent of these detainees, were citizens and legal residents of Peru of Japanese descent. The governments of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Cuba carried out Washington’s orders by setting up their own internment camps for Japanese living in these countries.

Washington’s restrictive immigration laws led more Japanese migrating to the Western Hemisphere to settle in Latin American countries. In 1908 U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt signed a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Tokyo halting Japanese immigration into the United States. Eleven years later Congress passed the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, giving this restriction legislative approval. It remained in effect until 1952.

(The previous three articles in this series have traced the evolution of U.S. government restrictions on immigration from the 1800s to today.)

Japanese immigrants began arriving in Latin America in the 1800s. Most of those going to Cuba arrived between 1910 and 1930 in search of jobs. More than 300 of these men were imprisoned for the duration of World War II in Presidio Modelo in the Isle of Pines, renamed the Isle of Youth after the revolution in 1959 when workers and peasants overthrew the hated U.S.-backed dictatorship and went on to open up the first socialist revolution in the Americas. In Cuba today there are about 1,300 citizens of Japanese descent. A yearly festival is now held in August at the Isle of Youth to mark the internment of Japanese-Cubans by the regime during the war.

Shortly before the start of World War II, Japanese in Peru owned a number of businesses and ran cultural institutions. In Lima, the capital, there were six Japanese schools. As Peruvian police seized these individuals and deported them to the United States, Washington covered the transportation costs. As they were whisked out of the country, local authorities confiscated their passports and visas.

The U.S. rulers not only held these Japanese from Latin America in wretched conditions in concentration camps. Their plan all along was to exchange many of them for U.S. prisoners of war. Almost 900 Japanese internees from Latin America were shipped to Japan as part of this deal. Many had never been to Japan, and some only spoke Spanish.

Hundreds more were forced to go to Japan after the war when the Peruvian government refused to let them return and Washington deported them as “illegal aliens.” In December 1947, two years after the end of the war, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes admitted that Washington was still detaining 293 Japanese-Peruvians. Some were detained through the next year.

Germán Yaki was 12 years old when his father was forced out of Peru in January 1943 and imprisoned in the Crystal City camp. His dad had been a leader of the Japanese Peruvian Society in Lima. Six months later he and his mother joined him. “I would always think, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong. My father didn’t do anything wrong. Why should we be paying for something we weren’t responsible for?’” he told Time Asia in a June 2000 interview.

In January 1944, Seabrook Farms began recruiting Japanese-Americans and those from Latin America imprisoned in the U.S. concentration camps to work in its southern New Jersey food plant. The company supplied frozen foods to the U.S. military during the war. It produced and packaged frozen vegetables, including the Birdseye brand. Within a year, nearly 1,000 workers had been relocated to Seabrook, New Jersey. The company employed about 3,000 Japanese as farm and factory workers. By 1955 Life magazine called Seabrook the largest vegetable factory in the world.

A number of those then working at Seabrook Farms came from the Crystal City internment camp. Seiichi Higashide in his book Adios to Tears: Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps described this experience. Higashide emigrated from Japan to Peru in 1931. When World War II began he was deported to the Crystal City internment camp. He and his family were then recruited to work at Seabrook Farms, which he described as a “company town.”

In an article originally published October 1995 in Rafu Shimpo, Jenni Kuida, whose family was also recruited by Seabrook Farms from Crystal City, commented on working conditions there. “During the peak season, the employee worked 12-hour shifts for as little as 30 to 50 cents per hour,” she wrote. “Living conditions were worse than they had been in Crystal City. Although the barbed wire was gone, they were still living in barracks, behind chain-link fences.”

Of the 1,800 interned Japanese-Peruvians, 300 fought a legal battle in the courts, allowing them to settle permanently in the Seabrook area. Not until 1952 could they begin the process of becoming permanent residents. Some eventually became U.S. citizens. It wasn’t until June 1998 that the Justice Department apologized to the Japanese from Latin America for bringing them to the United States by force and holding them in internment camps. It gave about 600 of them a token $5,000 settlement.
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May Day Actions for Immigrant Rights by State and City
Boycott affects many businesses
May Day: a workers’ tradition reborn
Miami: 4,000 rally to back Haitian immigrants  
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