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?
“Are those refugee houses?”
“It looks like people are being treated like animals.”
“It looks hot. Is it World War II? Are they Asian? Are they Jewish?”
“I think of boot camp and prison.”
My students had just walked through a photo gallery showing the forced removal and incarceration of JLAs. Our overcrowded room (40 students!) included many immigrants—Mexican, Vietnamese, Filipino, Pacific Islander, Russian—along with Chicano/as, African Americans, and white students. They wrote their impressions of the black-and-white pictures, trying to make sense of a story none had ever heard.
Then I wrote on the board:
Rounded up in the sweltering yard.
Unable to endure any longer
Standing in line
This is one of 13 poems etched in the stones of the Japanese American Historical Plaza of Portland, which honors the internment stories of local Japanese Americans. I read the poem aloud to the class and asked students to write what they thought the poem was about. It brought up more questions than answers. One student wrote: “In trouble? Military thing? Why is she there? What did she do to deserve this?” I read a few more of the poems and students continued to write.
One Mexican American student wrote: “Like any group working in the camp, they can’t take the heat anymore because they’ve been working all day. Standing outside ready to be transported to a new place like the Asian people in the pictures.” Throughout the unit students wrote regularly in journals. This particular student often wrote about his family’s experience as migrant workers and connected their experiences to those of the internees.
When I showed the class a map of the detention centers and incarceration camps, Ashley shouted, “That’s Oregon!” I explained that many people from Portland were affected and told the story of the Portland Expo Center (now used for large community events and cultural festivals), which was a detention center used to round up Japanese American families from our area. “You mean the race tracks up there in North Portland?” one student asked. “I grew up there!”
My students had learned little about the incarceration of local families. I explained that many people left Japan for the mainland United States, Hawaii, and Latin America, beginning in the late 1800s, to look for work. “Like the Mexicans now,” Javier said. “We come over here because there’s no work, you know. There’s no money. Our parents just want to do something so they can make sure there’s food and stuff.” A few other Mexican American students in the room nodded, listening attentively.
“Well, it’s like that for Filipinos, too,” Addel chimed in. “I know my family came over for a better life. I think it’s like that for a lot of people.” Javier looked at Addel and nodded from across the room. I had never seen Javier and Addel interact with each other before.
I introduced President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of Japanese Americans along the West Coast in 1942. I explained that more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated. But there were also Japanese Latin Americans. I pointed to the photo gallery and a student let out a gasp from the back of the room.
We read excerpts from “Latin Americans,” an appendix to Personal Justice Denied, a report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Students immediately jumped in with questions:
“How could they get away with that?”
“That’s messed up. How can people just sit there and let this happen?”
Sam, an immigrant from Liberia, interjected passionately, halfway out of his seat, “Why couldn’t we [the United States] just let everyone live here?” Since Sam had never before participated in class discussion, his excitement brought smiles from classmates.
Reparations Role Play
I didn’t tell too much of the history because I wanted the role play I had developed to spark the students’ curiosity. I based my role play on the format of Wayne Au’s “Addressing Redress,” which focuses on the issue of Japanese American redress. Au’s activity appealed to me because it is structured so that students are empowered to imagine a different conversation among groups and a different outcome in providing justice.
I introduced the role play by telling the class that, since there is not enough information on this history, a committee has been appointed to hold hearings and to make decisions on the issue of redress: “We are going to imagine what the outcome should be. You are each going to represent someone who has something to say about this.” I explained that they would share their character’s experiences and different perspectives with the committee.
When the students walked into class the next day, the group assignments were written on the board. Even before the bell rang, all of the students had circled their desks into groups and seated themselves. I handed each group a placard to write their group’s name. The groups represented: Japanese Latin Americans interned in the United States who stayed here; those who were deported to Japan; the governments of Latin American countries that gave up their Japanese descendents to the United States; Latin American vegetable growers who lobbied against the return of Japanese farmers; and contemporary U.S. citizens opposed to reparations. A final group of students were the judiciary committee that would have to make the ultimate decision on redress.
As I walked around the room introducing the groups to each other, the vibe was good-spirited and eager. There were some high fives and smiles of “What?!” when students learned what their role would be. Then I gave each group their full role play description to read together (available at www.rethinkingschools.org).
As part of their regular journal writing, I asked students to introduce themselves to me in character to help them internalize the information.
After students wrote, they proceeded to discuss with their group—staying in character—the following questions:
- Was the removal and internment of Japanese Latin Americans just or unjust? Why or why not?
- If unjust, what kind of redress should there be? No redress at all, government apology only, commitment to public education campaign, or money?
Meanwhile, I gave the judiciary committee members copies of the role play descriptions of the other groups and asked them to predict what each group would propose.
The following day, students again were in their grouped seats before class began. Sam raised his hand and said, “This is for the whole class.” He turned to the class and said: “Guys, I am really, really sorry for what I’m about to say today. I’m not trying to offend anybody. This isn’t me. I know I’m going to make some of you guys mad. And I’m really sorry about that.” Sam was about to speak on behalf of Americans opposed to reparations. I was blown away at his gesture of respect and solidarity. The class fell into silence, surprised by Sam’s comments. I told him that I appreciated what he had said.
“Good job, man!” Addel said.
John, a Russian American student, nodded to Sam from across the room, “Yeah, that was tight.”
I reinforced to the class that we were taking the roles of people who may have very different views from our own, saying: “The issues that we’ll address in our conversations are themes we find throughout history. In order to understand how such events can occur and how different people were affected, we have to learn from the perspectives of others.”
I opened the forum with a welcoming statement as the facilitator of this judicial hearing and reviewed the decision that the judiciary committee would need to make in the end.
The JLA group that volunteered to go first had studied a narrative taken in great part from the memoirs of JLA survivor Seiichi Higashide in Adios to Tears. “Nobody had the right to take us like that,” Cesar explained. “We had a family, a home, and a country. We were taken just like that and put in the internment camp.” They went on to recommend restitution for the JLAs, but didn’t think any amount of money was enough to repay the survivors for what they went through.
Addel spoke for the JLAs who were sent to Japan. “We were kidnapped. Nobody gave us a choice of where we were going to go. And we were just there [in Peru] to work. But then, you guys made us prisoners and sent us to Japan. I had my wife and child. And you took that away from me because you sent me to Japan. That’s not even where I’m really from.” This group also wanted redress, but they demanded the right to live in the United States or go back to Peru.
Sam represented Americans against reparations. “We don’t believe that any of this even happened,” he said. As Sam counted the reasons on his fingers he said, “There’s no proof, no evidence of these camps, and we don’t think the Japanese people would’ve been fooled.” He meant that the Japanese government would not have taken the JLAs in exchange for U.S. prisoners when some of them did not even speak Japanese. Sam continued, “And besides that, if the U.S. government did do all of these things, they probably had a good reason.” Sam sat down. I asked him for their recommendation on redress, and several of the kids in the group called out “None!”
Ashley presented the thoughts of Latin American vegetable growers. After explaining why they created their organization of small businesses, she said, “We feel that the Japanese are a competition for our business.” She described how Japanese farmers came to dominate the agricultural market in Peru and said: “We don’t want them to come back and take our jobs. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are, and they’re just going to take it back again.”
Last, the group representing the governments of Latin America said, “We feel bad for them [JLAs] but it wasn’t like we had a choice.” Tiffany explained, “If it wasn’t for the U.S. asking us to gather and remove JLAs, we probably wouldn’t have done it.” Another student added, “And at the same time, we didn’t want them [JLAs] in our country either because they were causing a lot of problems for us.” She was referring to the anti-Japanese rioting and looting of businesses and homes in Peru. “We feel bad but it wasn’t really our fault. The U.S. made us because we’re scared of them,” they concluded.
When I offered all of the groups a chance to add additional arguments, Maria, from the first JLA group, spoke up. She said that people need to have immigration documents and to feel secure knowing that they won’t be deported. In the discussion, Maria, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico, expressed her feelings as a young immigrant in today’s anti-immigrant climate. Cesar added that interning the JLAs was similar to treating immigrants as terrorists. “We are not terrorists,” Cesar said. “Don’t treat us like that. That’s racist.” He was full of emotion and the entire class listened quietly. “This is like the cops harassing us and stuff. I don’t know what the word is . . .”
Pedro looked up and said, “Profiling! Racial profiling!”
“Yeah,” continued Cesar. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Although Maria and Cesar stepped out of character, I was delighted to see students connecting their personal experiences to those of people more than 60 years ago.
‘They Weren’t Criminals’
From the energy in the room, I knew that students needed an outlet to express their own feelings on this issue. I asked them to write in their journals again, this time talking back in their own voices to their character or another group in the room. A number of students wrote that the forced removal and internment of Japanese Latin Americans was based on racism. Rumel, who had portrayed an American against reparations, wrote to his group: “They weren’t criminals. They didn’t do anything wrong. How can you say it’s OK to treat people like this? It’s just straight racist. Is this what we want to tell future generations?”
Ben, from the Latin American vegetable growers’ group, reflected on his experiences growing up in Portland as a Vietnamese immigrant: “I used to feel invisible because I didn’t belong anywhere. . . . I don’t know what I’d do if someone told me I can’t be here [in the United States] anymore just because of my race.”
Jenny, who had struggled to stay in her character as the governments of Latin America during the role play, disagreed strongly with her group. She wrote, “It’s just an excuse to say that the U.S. made us [the governments of Latin America] do it [the forced removal and internment of JLAs] because we didn’t want them here in the first place. . . . I think everyone’s trying to blame somebody else.”
As the other students wrote, the judiciary committee had the job of deciding what would be a just response of the U.S. government. Students in the group felt heavyhearted with this responsibility. “This is a lot of pressure,” Jasmine remarked.
Nick agreed. “How do we decide what’s fair for these people?”
I encouraged the group to think about what they thought was the “messed-up-ness,” a term coined by the class to describe social injustice. “Why do you think what happened was messed up or not messed up? Does the U.S. government need to do something to make that wrong right? And what does that right thing look like to you?” Finally, the committee began discussing their thoughts with each other.
The next day, the committee was eager to give its decision. Tina spoke on behalf of the group. She explained that they decided “yes” on redress. “What we [the United States] did to them was wrong and we’re responsible to fix it.” She said that since the JLAs were forced from their homes, they added their own type of reparation which was “to help them reunite with their families.” The committee concluded that the U.S. government should also issue a formal apology and public education, but no money. “We should apologize because we know it was wrong,” Tina explained. “We should have public education so this never happens again.”
Nick added that they recommend that this story be taught in U.S. history classes “so that everybody knows.” However, they did not want to give money because “our economy is in bad shape right now. . . . People are losing jobs and there’s just no money. We’re sorry, but we just can’t pay them.”
This was an interesting conclusion, and reflected the students’ recognition of the economic difficulties of families in the neighborhood and nationally. Many students in the class were experiencing harsh living conditions as the economic crisis disproportionately affected families of color and immigrants. During the winter I taught this unit, I worried about whether students were going home to heated places. In addition, they had seen their classroom size explode and understood that a lack of money was the underlying factor. All of this had led students to assume that the U.S. government has no money, rather than that the money is distributed unequally or that the government is spending money on things that it thinks are more important, like the war in Afghanistan.
‘What Really Happened?’
The next day, Sam walked into the room asking, “Ms. Yonamine, now are you going to tell us what really happened?” I told the students about the actual bill seeking redress and showed them a timeline of the bill’s development and current status. As I shared information, students listened attentively. Addel jumped in, disturbed that all of the surviving JLAs had not yet received reparations, “So there’s no decision yet whatsoever by us [the United States]?” I explained that we are still waiting for an official study by a congressional committee on wartime violations by the U.S. government against JLAs.
“What would you recommend to this committee based on what you have learned?” I asked. “Write them a letter.” The class fell into silence as they busily went to work. This was the most effort I had seen students put into any written assignment all year. The responses showed their ideals and empathy.
“How would we feel if this happened to us?” asked Beto. “We did it. Now it is time to fix it. . . . They should especially include public education. That way in the future it won’t happen again.”
Sarah agreed. “They deserve to have their lives back. . . . Americans should provide apologies and money toward building their lives or whatever we took from them. . . . We need to help put all of the elders’ minds at ease! So many of the elders have not given up in court yet and are still fighting to get back what they lost. We would want the same to be done for us.”
By the time our unit was complete, something important had developed in our class. Students showed more courage to call out race and racism as they analyzed both history and current events. Students began to explore how race has been a fundamental factor in the history of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
Most importantly, through their discussions and writing, students began to reflect on how race affects their own lives, often incorporating the history of their own families. They began to see how racism is not just an issue for some groups, but is an issue of human rights for all people.
Throughout this unit, my 8th-grade class inspired me with their compassion. Later in the year, students wrote reflections on their learning from this unit. Many suggested that it be taught each year.
“I can use the way we learned to talk to each other for the rest of my life,” said Rumel.
“It challenged us to think like different people, and it gave us power to make the decision,” said Nick.
And finally, Sam, after sitting silently for several minutes carefully pondering what to write, left me one line: “We listened to each other.”
There is discussion among Asian American scholars and activists about whether to call what happened to Japanese Americans (and Japanese Latin Americans) during World War II “internment” or “incarceration.” In this article, both terms are used interchangeably.
Au, Wayne. “Addressing Redress.” Teaching About Asian Pacific Americans: Effective Activities, Strategies, and Assignments for Classrooms and Communities. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
United States. Personal Justice Denied—Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982.
Higashide, Seiichi. Adios to Tears—The Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.
Masterson, Daniel and Sayaka Funada-Classen. The Japanese in Latin America. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Campaign for Justice.www.campaignfor justicejla.org [“History” and “Resources” tabs].
Japanese American Citizens League. www.jacl.org [“Education” tabs].
Map of internment camps is found at: www.jacl.org/edu/MapofConcentrationCamps.pdf.