Exposing Japanese-Peruvian WWII internment camps

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On February 19th in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, interning approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans. But that order had implications way beyond the American shores. It affected thousands of Japanese living in Peru and in other countries of South America. Their story is only now being told. Tyler Sipe reports.

DAVID BARON: I'm David Baron and this is The World. On this date in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed executive order 9 066. It sent some 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps. The order also had implications beyond the United States. It affected thousands of Japanese living in Peru and other South American countries. From San Francisco, Tyler Sipe reports.

TYLER SIPE: Libia Yamamoto attends church with other Japanese-Americans in Richmond, California. Yamamoto was born to Japanese parents who had immigrated to Peru. More than 20,000 people of Japanese ancestry lived in Peru before the outbreak of the Second World War. But the Japanese-Peruvian community changed dramatically after December 7, 1941.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.

SIPE: Three months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government began sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps, claiming they were a danger to U.S. security. Several Latin American countries also sent their Japanese residents to camps in the U.S.

WESLEY UEUNTEN: There was latent anti-Japanese hostility, as well as opportunists who thought that if they got rid of the Japanese, they could take over their businesses and land.

SIPE: That's Wesley Ueunten, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.

UEUNTEN: Peru and the U.S. got into these agreements where Peru would cooperate with the U.S. defense efforts, sending Japanese to the U.S. In exchange, Peru received loans for things like a steel processing plant or for munitions, etcetera.

SIPE: Ueunten claims what America got was a bargaining chip. People they could exchange for POW's caught in Japanese territory. They couldn't use Japanese-Americans. Ueunten says that would have looked really bad. In Peru, police detained Yamamoto's father. The next morning, Yamamoto and dozens of other Japanese-Peruvian families went to the police station.

YAMAMOTO: And the mothers all sobbed silently and we didn't even know if we would see him again. And we waved until we couldn't see them anymore.

SIPE: Six months later, Yamamoto and her family were also put on a ship and deported from Peru.

YAMAMOTO: Boarding the ship was another terrifying time. On the plank they were lined with soldiers, U.S. soldiers who had guns pointing at us and we thought we were going to get shot.

SIPE: Yamamoto was reunited with her father in a detention camp in Crystal City, Texas. The war ended in 1945 but Yamamoto and her family remained in the camp for another two years.

YAMAMOTO: Government said sorry, you're all illegal aliens, you have to live. Go to Peru or Japan. Well Peru wouldn't take us back.

SIPE: Most internees from Latin America moved to Japan but Yamamoto, her family and 300 others fought to stay in the United States. After decades in the Americas, they had no real ties to their homeland. In the 1950's, they were granted permanent residency. Grace Shimizu makes dinner for her 96 year old mother at their Bay Area home. Shimizu often asked her dad about his forced deportation from Peru to the U.S.

GRACE SHIMIZU: I think the way he mostly expressed it was it was wartime, Shikataganei, you know, it couldn't be helped.

SIPE: Shimizu believes differently. She co-founded the Japanese-Peruvian oral history project, which tries to shed light on internment experiences. The organization also tries to help other communities that are under attack. The group spoke up for Muslim-Americans in the days following September 11th.

SHIMIZU: The message of peace and standing with our neighbors who were also under attack because they were targeted as the enemy was so important because during WWII, our communities know what it meant when others did not stand by our side.

SIPE: For The World, I'm Tyler Sipe in Berkeley, California.

BARON: We have pictures of some of those Peruvian-Japanese internees at TheWorld.org.