From Peru to California, a community remembers Japanese Latin American activist


SPEAKING OUT ­— Blanca Sadako Katsura and Libby Yamamoto (R) at the Crystal City Pilgrimage in November 2019. courtesy of Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW for Japanese Latin Americans

SPEAKING OUT ­— Blanca Sadako Katsura and Libby Yamamoto (R) at the Crystal City Pilgrimage in November 2019.
courtesy of Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW for Japanese Latin Americans

On her 87th birthday, Libia Hideko Yamamoto passed away after a long bout with illness. Born Dec. 3, 1935 in Chiclayo, Peru, she was one of more than 2,264 Japanese Latin American men, women and children the United States used in prisoner exchanges with Japan during World War II.

Friends and family gathered at the East Bay Free Methodist Japanese Church in El Cerrito, Calif. Jan. 14 to celebrate her life. Her son Mark Yamamoto said she was a devout Christian, and the church was only second to her family in life. The late Yamamoto was a Sunday school teacher at the church and attended services each week, even after the English congregation was disbanded years ago. Being trilingual in English, Japanese and Spanish, she continued attending the church as part of its Nichigo congregation.

The Rev. Ichiro Nakahama, in offering words of comfort to attendees, added that she was both a regular attendee, and an eager one, who seldom missed a meeting, even when the congregation went online over Zoom during the pandemic.

“Wednesday prayer and Bible study, we start at 7 p.m. She logs in (at) 4 o’clock,” he said. “Latest? Five o’clock.”

According to her siblings Eloy Maoki and Blanca Sadako Katsura, they were the children of Saburo and Hitomi Maoki. Their father immigrated to Peru in 1914 at the age of 21 to work as a farm laborer.

Growing up, Katsura said her family farmed and operated a general store on leased land. Their house had no running water or electricity, but they paid other people to port water and do their laundry.

The Maoki family, however, was forced from their home along with other Japanese Peruvians in 1943 when their father was first taken away by detectives one evening. Saburo Maoki was then taken to Panama before the U.S. informed him he would be used in a prisoner exchange with Japan.

The elder Maoki, according to Katsura, sent for the rest of his family, fearing he would never see them again otherwise and the U.S. government agreed since it would add additional bodies to the potential prisoner exchange.

Fearing the children would also be forced to work wherever they would be sent, however, Katsura said she and her younger sister elected to learn how to do house work.

“I was 12 at the time, so it wasn’t too bad for me, but Hideko (who was seven years old at that time) seemed to be having a hard time doing the washing by hand at that age,” she said in Japanese.

The family was detained in Crystal City, Texas until the end of the war. Once released in 1947, they could not return to Peru, so they moved into the basement of the East Bay Free Methodist Church, then located in Berkeley, Calif. under the sponsorship of a nun.

Mary Ann Furuichi met Yamamoto who was living out of the church. Furuichi said they “clicked” instantly and became lifelong friends who traveled together to Alaska and Disneyland, and celebrated each other’s birthdays. “She really had a sense of humor, and we had so much fun together,” Furuichi said at the memorial service. “Hide stylishly dressed for many occasions that she attended. She was charming, charismatic, and these were reflected in her enjoyment of being with others.”

According to her younger brother Eloy Maoki, Yamamoto attended Longfellow Elementary School, then Burbank Junior High and Berkeley High School. In 1956 she married Richard Yamamoto and raised two sons, Paul and Mark. She had wanted to attend the University of California, Berkeley, but her immigrant status made tuition prohibitively expensive. She instead worked at the Japanese consulate in San Francisco and later at Greyhound Lines where she was quickly promoted to a managerial position thanks to her language skills. She worked at the bus company until her retirement in 2000.

Maoki said he and his sister were close, given their ages. He was the middle child of five siblings, with two younger brothers, the late Terry Teruhiko Maoki, who was born in Crystal City, and Frank Hiromi Maoki, who was born in Berkeley.

“So in between the oldest and youngest was Libia and myself. So we shared a lot more experiences from the time we left Peru, and we have a lot of memories that we share, so I think it’s the biggest loss for me,” Maoki said.

Yamamoto’s death is also a loss within the larger context of a campaign for redress by Japanese Latin Americans. Yamamoto is a founding member of both the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and the Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW for Japanese Latin Americans!

“We went to a reunion of some of the Crystal City people. And at that place we were talking and I noticed that the number of people who went to Crystal City was dwindling because of age, and so we thought we have to start saving some of the oral histories, and so we organized the oral history project,” Maoki said.

The oral history project, started in 1991, also started the campaign in 1996, after the U.S. government denied reparations and an apology to the Japanese Latin Americans in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

While Yamamoto and the Maoki family had secured redress through the Civil Liberties Act — their attorney Wayne Collins advised them to apply for retroactive permanent residency, qualifying them as legal residents of the United States while they were incarcerated — most Japanese Latin Americans were denied redress in the landmark bill.

In 1998, the U.S. agreed to the Mochizuki settlement, which offered $5,000 to each survivor, but some former inmates declined the offer and continued to demand redress equal to Japanese Americans, or $20,000.

Maoki said their efforts demanding an apology from the United States was not for their personal acknowledgment of the government’s wrong doing, “but the redress and acknowledgment for all the Latin Americans who were wrongfully uprooted, deported and interned in the U.S.,” he told the Nichi Bei News.

He, however, added he felt somewhat “hopeless,” as survivors continue to die of old age. The U.S. has since ignored a 2020 ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming the U.S. was liable for the continued inaction to acknowledge what they did during World War II. Grace Shimizu, director for both the oral history project and Campaign for Justice, said survivors of the abductions today were all children or teenagers during the war.

“Why is (the U.S. government) not complying with international law? And why is it that the level of acknowledgement and reparations (is at that level),” Shimizu said to the Nichi Bei News. “Does that mean that this is the standard that should be held up to the world?”

According to Natsu Saito, the campaign’s attorney, however, all has not been for naught. Governments have acknowledged their cases, even if they fell short, such as in the Mochizuki settlement’s case.

“The IACHR case, which has taken 17 years before we got the judgment published, has solidified in the annals of human rights law, the fact that the United States government was, has been and still is in violation of international law … it is a really significant ruling in the Shibayama case, but also for more general purposes,” she told the Nichi Bei News. “And there’s a lot more awareness of what happened, the historical record has been at least partially preserved and sort of excavated in ways that it would not have absent the redress movement. And so if you think about redress and reparations in a broader sense of the term, at least under international law, it encompasses a lot more than just an apology and money. And I think that, no thanks to the government, the movement has been able to get some forms of very meaningful redress for the people who were victims of this insane program.”

While the U.S. executive and legislative branches are not likely to act in their favor any time soon, Shimizu said the campaign aims to re-bolster its educational mission to “better understand our history to reckon with all the problems from the past that have been dragged into the present.”

Katsura said her sister had a hard life, but she added that Yamamoto always did her best despite any hardships. Yamamoto spoke to college students about her life experiences and kept a positive mindset.

Nakahama said he could never get the full story of her life in Peru, but he said Yamamoto spoke without any regrets. “She always ended up with, ‘it was good,’ ‘yokatta yokatta,’” he said. “She always expressed that, even when she was going to hospital. … “it’s good, I’m OK.”

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