DURING WORLD WAR II, Latin Americans of Japanese descent were victims of "extraordinary rendition" - even though the phrase hadn't been coined yet.
Extraordinary rendition - the state-sanctioned abduction of a person for incarceration and interrogation in another country - was a practice honed to pernicious perfection by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/1 1 .
But six decades earlier, in a little-known piece of history, Japanese Latin Americans were abducted by the US military with the acquiescence of local authorities in 13 Central and South American countries. They were never charged with any crime, nor told why they were taken.
The US government claimed it was all done in the interest of national security. Those who were abducted - business leaders, teachers, journalists - were viewed as potential spies for Japan. They were also taken as fodder for possible hostage exchanges down the road.
But unlike Japanese Americans, who have attained redress for their imprisonment during the war, Japanese Latin Americans are still struggling to achieve some measure of justice and closure through legislation currently winding its way through Congress.
The experience of Japanese Peruvians was emblematic of other Japanese Latin Americans. Emigration from Japan to Peru began at the start of the 20th century. The US government's exclusion laws made Latin America a more inviting destination for Japanese sojourners who hoped to make a bundle in a new land and eventually make a prosperous return to the homeland.
Japanese migration to Peru started in the spring of 1899 when the Sakura Maru docked at the port city of Callao. There were 790 Japanese men on the ship, ready to begin work as contract laborers. Within four years, the Japanese population in Peru had risen to 3,000. Other countries in Latin America saw similar rapid growth.
But the prosperity and stability that the Japanese found in Peru and other Latin American countries was shaken dramatically in the aftermath of Japan's Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. As West Coast Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps, thousands of Japanese Latin Americans were rounded up, taken from their home countries and placed in similar camps in the United States. "We were kidnapped, plain and simple," says Peruvian-born Hector Watanabe, 70, who was 4 when he and his family were placed in a camp in Crystal City, TX, for the duration of World War II. (Most Japanese Latin Americans were placed in three internment camps that were separate from the 10 camps where Japanese Americans were housed.)
Although evidence does not suggest that the Japanese Latin Americans were tortured in the US camps, many of those who were interned tell stories of humiliation, terror and affronts to dignity, including being forced to remove all of their clothes upon arrival in the United States to be inspected for lice and showered with DDT, much like cattle.
When the war was over, the US government told the Japanese Latin Americans they were "Illegal aliens" and would be deported "back" to Japan. Many were born in Latin America and didn't even speak Japanese; they spoke Spanish.
What happened to the Japanese Latin Americans during World War Il was a harbinger of what was to come in the aftermath of the 9/1 1 attacks and the Bush administration's "war on terror," when secret government operatives kidnapped individuals suspected of having links to the terrorist attacks and whisked them away to a third country - such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia - for "interrogation" (critics of the program have referred to it as "outsourcing torture").
"Often, we've seen that the government's response to national security crisis is repression," constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky says. "What happened to the Latin American Japanese is not dissimilar to what's happening today with others perceived by the government to be threats to national security. It's a dangerous threat to the civil liberties of us all."
Japanese Americans attained a belated degree of personal justice in 1988, when the Civil Liberties Act awarded them reparations and an official apology from the US government; Japanese Latin Americans have not had that kind of positive resolution. The government told them they were not covered by legislation, and thus not eligible for reparations, because they were "illegal aliens."
Subsequent federal lawsuits did not succeed in providing closure for the Japanese Latin Americans, so they turned their attention to Washington, hoping a law could be enacted to do for them what the Civil Liberties Act did for Japanese American internees.
US Sen. Daniel lnouye, D-Hl, and US Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, have authored bills to do just that. After eight years of failure during the Bush administration, they are now a bit more optimistic that their measure has a chance to become law, given the Obama administration's new attitude regarding homeland security.
"The American public should know that as much as it was a monumental achievement of this country to have freedom prevail in World War II, at the same time there was pain and tragedy and a lack of justice in some situations," Becerra says. "I hope we can finally close the door on the chapter of this period in history.
Luis Torres is a veteran journalist, writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.
In this issue's Features section, LUIS TORRES reported on the redress efforts of Americans [Japanese Latin Americans] who were placed in detention camps in the United States during World War II. "What interested me was the parallel between how the US government reacted to December 7 and the way, many years later, it reacted to 9/11. The parallels are stark and disquieting." Torres recently retired as a general assignment reporter for the CBS radio station in Los Angeles and has written for several publications, including the Los Angeles Times. He also developed the public television documentary series Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement and produced the first Los Lobos record "waaay back" in the late 1970s.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!