Rights commission rules in favor of Japanese Latin Americans kidnapped during WWII


Art Shibayama testified March 21 at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. photo by Martha Nakagawa

BITTERSWEET VICTORY — Art Shibayama, who passed away July 31, 2018, testified March 21, 2017 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. photo by Martha Nakagawa

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States issued its verdict Aug. 4, ruling in favor of the late Isamu Carlos “Art” Shibayama and the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project.

The IACHR is an independent agency within the OAS, and its main mission is to promote the observance and protection of human rights in the American hemisphere.

Because the IACHR has a huge backlog of cases, the ruling came 17 years after the Shibayama brothers — Art, Kenichi and Takeshi — and the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project filed a petition with the IACHR on June 10, 2003, and three years after Art and Grace Shimizu with JPOHP testified before the IACHR in Washington, D.C.

Art Shibayama passed away on July 31, 2018.

Bekki Shibayama, who testified along with her father Art in 2017, considers the ruling “bittersweet since the decision was not made during my father’s lifetime.”

The IACHR decision recommended reparations for human rights violations and full disclosure of the U.S. government’s actions and of the fates of the kidnapped Japanese Latin Americans.

Natsu Saito, law professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, described the IACHR ruling as “extraordinary” since “it’s very difficult to get a case heard by the Inter-American Commission because as you can imagine, there are a lot of human rights violations in the Americas.”

However, Saito noted that the IACHR could not address many of Shibayama’s claims since it only had jurisdiction over violations committed after 1951, when the U.S. joined the charter of the OAS.

“The Commission could only directly address the exclusion of the Japanese Latin Americans from the redress provided to Japanese Americans under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988,” said Saito.

During World War II, the Shibayama family was among the 2,264 Japanese Latin Americans forcibly taken away from their homes from more than 13 different Latin American countries to be used in a hostage exchange between the U.S. and Japan.

More than 800 Japanese Latin Americans were victims of this hostage exchange, including Art Shibayama’s grandparents, whom the family never saw again after the war and learned decades later that the grandparents had lived in poverty in Japan.

The U.S. government came up with this wartime scheme after realizing it would not be feasible to exchange an American citizen of Japanese descent imprisoned in a U.S.-style concentration camp with a non-Japanese American prisoner of war with Japan.

As a result, the U.S. government collaborated to round up Japanese living in the various Latin American countries and forcibly placed them on U.S. military ships, confiscated their passports and imprisoned them indefinitely for close to six years. When the war ended, the U.S. government categorized them as “illegal aliens” and deported more than 900 JLAs to war-torn Japan.

In addition, many of the Latin American countries refused re-entry of the JLAs after the war, making them stateless.

To add insult to injury, the JLAs were excluded from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered a governmental apology and token monetary reparation to Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned in U.S.-style concentration camps during World War II.

In an attempt to get equitable redress, the Shibayamas brought their case before the IACHR, an international forum, after five lawsuits and two unsuccessful congressional bills, according to Karen Parker, lead attorney for the Shibayamas and the JLAs.

The Shibayamas were among the 17 former incarcerees who opted out of the federal class action lawsuit ruling in Mochizuki vs. the United States, in which $5,000 — one fourth of what was given to former Japanese American camp incarcerees — was offered to former kidnapped JLAs. The late Art Shibayama considered this an insult and continued to pursue equitable redress for JLAs.

Next Steps
Shimizu said with the IACHR decision, they plan to:
• Attempt to secure a meeting with the president of the United States after the November election to discuss compliance with the IACHR ruling;
• Work with Congress to develop legislation to comply with the IACHR decision;
• Educate the general public;
• Build solidarity with different communities with shared experiences of being forcibly uprooted, separated from families and indefinitely imprisoned.

Whether the U.S. government will consider the IACHR ruling remains to be seen since the IACHR does not have an enforcement component, and at the March 2017 hearing, the U.S. representative to the IACHR did not appear at the session. A spokesperson for the State Department said they were absent from the March hearings because the IACHR had not requested their presence.

However, Shimizu noted that the IACHR was a “bonafide international human rights organization whose decisions do carry the weight of interpreting international law and principles and treaties” but admitted that “governments do not always respect these international bodies and their decisions.”

“So then, we need to figure out and work towards holding our government accountable,” said Shimizu. “And that’s just not the Japanese Latin Americans’ job to do. It’s for everyone in the United States to hold this government accountable.”

For more than 70 years, the U.S. government has been able to avoid fully disclosing the extent of its international human rights violations during the war when it instigated the kidnapping of not only Japanese but also Germans, Italians and Jews from 13 complicit Latin American countries to be used in hostage exchanges between Japan, Germany and Italy.

Within the U.S., however, the majority of Japanese Americans have failed to embrace the plight of the JLAs, and sources, dead and alive, have independently confirmed that some Japanese American leaders, during the push for redress in the 1980s, made backroom dealings to exclude JLAs from any congressional redress legislation if that would ensure the passage of a redress bill for Japanese Americans.

As a result, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 denies redress to “illegal aliens,” which is what the U.S. government categorized JLAs after the end of the war.

Additionally, the backroom dealings allegedly included an agreement not to be involved in pursuing future redress for JLAs.

While a small group of Japanese Americans did continue to pursue equitable redress for JLAs, support for JLAs, on a wider basis, has thus far failed to gain traction.

Rev. Michael Yoshii, the recently retired minister at the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif. and social justice advocate, urged the community to come out and support their cause. “In the case of the Japanese Latin Americans, although it is a call for redress for past years of human rights violations, their stories evoke for us today lessons and inspiration for the fight against injustice taking place around the world,” he said.

Kazumu Julio Cesar Naganuma, who was forcibly taken from Callao, Peru, along with his family to the Crystal City Department of Justice camp in Texas during the war, noted that his father had lost everything as a result of the U.S. government’s actions.

“Every single Japanese Latin American that was imprisoned, kidnapped, that was put into camp without due process, without representation, who were never charged with a crime and who were ultimately classified as illegal aliens — every single Japanese Latin American deserves reparations,” said Naganuma.

Phil Tajitsu Nash, who had submitted a letter of support to the IACHR on behalf of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2017, encouraged those who want to support the JLAs to visit www.jlacampaignforjustice.org.

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