Karleen C. Chinen
Members of the Peru-Kai know what it’s like to be without a country and to be stripped of all their rights. They know because that is what happened to them during World War II. But instead of harboring bitterness, they continue to educate their families and the public about the wartime injustice inflicted upon themselves and other Japanese Latin Americans — and to cherish opportunities to get together with their fellow internees from nearly 70 years ago.
Three generations of Peru-Kai families from O‘ahu, the neighbor islands, the continental U.S. and Japan spent Aug. 2 and 3 at the Ala Moana Hotel, talking story and sharing memories of their pre-World War II lives in Peru and later in a desolate barbed wire-enclosed camp in Texas, where they came to know each other in the 1940s. The camp, located about 110 southwest of San Antonio, was known as Crystal City.
Even in their 70s and 80s, they greet each other like childhood friends. Their Spanish names, especially the women’s names — Elsa, Libia, Rosa, Blanca, Anita — give away the fact that they were different from the internees who were uprooted from their homes along the West Coast of the United States and in Hawai‘i.
Most of the people in this group, like reunion organizer Maurice Yamasato (assisted by his wife Jean) and his sisters, were born in Peru and imprisoned at Crystal City after being deported by the Peruvian government following the outbreak of World War II.
Most of the Nisei attending the reunion were the children of Issei who had immigrated to Peru from Japan and Okinawa around the turn of the 20th century to start new lives. Most had started families were living happy and prosperous lives — until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Peruvians were then uprooted and forcibly sent to the Crystal City Family Alien Internment Camp, which was supervised by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Issei fathers were taken first and imprisoned in other INS camps in Texas. They were later allowed to join their families at Crystal City.
Japanese Peruvians weren’t the only group interned, however. The U.S. government orchestrated the forced deportation of 2,264 Japanese from 12 Latin American countries — Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The majority of the deported Japanese — about 80 percent — were from Peru. The plan was to use them as hostage exchanges for American prisoners of war who had been captured by the Japanese. For the most part, the plan failed.
Crystal City was among the last of the confinement sites to close, remaining open until late 1947 because the Peruvian government refused to allow its own citizens back into their country and because the U.S. government considered Japanese Peruvians to be illegal immigrants and refused to release them into the general community. Additionally, few internee families wanted to return to Japan.
Eigo and Elsa (Higashide) Kudo, both of whom were born in Peru, shared their life experiences, mainly for the sake of the younger generations in attendance who know very little about their parents’ unique history. Elsa said their lives were “turned upside down” after the war broke out.
Her father, Seiichi Higashide, immigrated to Peru in 1931 from his native Hokkaidö and became a successful businessman. Higashide, whose story is documented in his book, “Adios to Tears,” was forced to close his businesses after Pearl Harbor and was deported to the United States. After spending six months in another Texas camp, he was finally reunited with his family at Crystal City. Thanks to civil rights attorney Wayne Collins, the Higashide family was allowed to settle in Hawai‘i.
Eigo Kudo’s family was interned at Crystal City, as well. The Kudos were subsequently “paroled” to Seabrook Farms, a frozen food processing business in New Jersey that was in need of workers. Their parole was also due to the efforts of attorney Wayne Collins. Eigo recalled that prior to Seabrook Farms coming to recruit workers for their plants, no one could leave the camp unless they had a sponsor who would vouch for them.
Because they were not American citizens at the time of their incarceration, Japanese Peruvians and other Japanese Latin Americans were excluded from the apology and $20,000 redress payment given to each surviving Japanese American internee covered by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. They were forced to file a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government. The settlement, reached in 1998, gave each Japanese Peruvian internee who joined in the suit a settlement of $5,000.
Four of the attendees whose families decided to restart their lives in Japan after the war traveled to Hawai‘i for the reunion. Mitsuaki Oyama from Kawasaki City said other Peru-Kai members in Japan wanted to attend the reunion, but decided against it because of their advanced age and health challenges.
This year’s reunion was attended by nearly 65 people and featured homegrown entertainment by the young grandchildren of Maurice and Jean Yamasato and the musical group Pali, led by Nä Hökü Hanohano Award winner Pali Ka‘aihue. It was the Peru-Kai’s 16th gathering. Previous reunions have been held in various locations, including California, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Texas, Hiroshima, Okinawa, and the homeland, Peru.
Libia (Maoki) Yamamoto, who now gets around with the help of a walker, traveled from Richmond, Calif., for the chance to see her old friends. Fighting back tears, she recalled the terror and humiliation she felt at being forced to strip naked and being sprayed with DDT after arriving in America.
But Yamamoto also recalled the mixed feelings she and other that Crystal City internees felt when their “neighbors” left to begin new lives outside the barbed wire fences. She said the internees would gather and sing the old cowboy song, “Red River Valley,” as their friends departed.
“From this valley they say you are going. / We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile, / For they say you are taking the sunshine / That has brightened our pathway a while . . .”