My unit on the largely unknown history of the internment of Japanese Latin Americans began 12 years ago. I was on a bus from Portland, Ore., to Tule Lake, Calif., site of one of the largest Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II. “I am from Japan,” the elder sitting next to me said in Japanese. “But I am originally from Peru.” For me, it was an honorable coincidence to find myself next to this elder.
An elder sitting in front of us turned around and said in English, “He looks very familiar.” As I translated their conversation, it came out that they were both young boys interned at Tule Lake. “I know him!” said the Japanese American elder. “He was my friend!” Grabbing the Peruvian man’s hand and shaking it firmly, he explained that they played baseball together often but that one day his friend just disappeared. His friend had only spoken Spanish, so he could never ask him what he was doing in the camp. He had wondered all of these years what had happened to him. The Peruvian Japanese elder’s face beamed with joy as the two continued to shake hands, not letting go. “I am so glad you are safe,” he said. They had reunited after more than 50 years.
Among those who attended the Tule Lake Pilgrimage were children and grandchildren of internees who hoped to learn from the oral stories of the elders. Many have since joined the Campaign for Justice, seeking redress from the U.S. government for orchestrating and financing the forcible deportation and incarceration of Japanese Latin Americans (JLAs) during World War II.
This is the little-known background to the unit that I decided to teach my 8th-grade U.S. history students: Even before Pearl Harbor, in October 1941, the U.S. government initiated plans to construct an internment camp near the Panama Canal Zone for JLAs. The United States targeted JLAs it deemed security threats and pressured Latin American governments to round them up and turn them over, prompting Peru to engage in the mass arrest of Japanese descendents it sought to expel. Beginning in 1942, 13 Latin American governments arrested more than 2,300 JLAs in their countries (more than 80 percent from Peru), including teachers, farmers, barbers, and businessmen. The U.S. government transported the JLAs from Panama to internment camps in the United States, confiscating passports and visas. Two prisoner exchanges with Japan took place in 1942 and 1943 of at least 800 JLAs—many of whom had never been to Japan. Fourteen hundred JLAs remained in U.S. internment camps until the end of the war, when the government deemed them “illegal aliens.” Meanwhile, the Peruvian government refused to readmit any of its citizens of Japanese origin. With nowhere to go, more than 900 Japanese Peruvians were deported to Japan in December 1945. Some JLA survivors are now telling their stories for the first time; new information is still being uncovered.
As an Okinawan, this history hit close to my heart. In The Japanese in Latin America, I learned that large waves of Okinawans migrated to South America beginning in the late 1800s as the once sovereign Ryukyu island chain was brought under Japanese control. By the time WWII began, the majority of immigrants to Peru were Okinawan. There was also a large group in Brazil. Many families in Okinawa today have relatives from South America including my own, but stories of their migration and their lives thereafter remain largely untold.
My own questions turned into my inquiry as a history teacher. How can I teach 8th graders to imagine the experiences of people from another time in history and make connections to today? How can I teach them about social injustice in a way that will make them feel empowered and not cynical? How can I encourage students to visualize what a just world would look like to them?