Japanese Latin Americans

Japanese migrated to Mexico and several Latin American countries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As in the United States, they were recruited for their labor, mainly agricultural work. With the start of World War II, military necessity was the U.S. justification for exerting its influence over the entire Western Hemisphere, which it saw as an American sphere of interest since the 19th-century under the Monroe Doctrine. To secure the hemisphere, the United States pressured the governments of Mexico and countries in the Caribbean and Central and Latin America to send their Japanese, Germans, and Italians to the United States for use as hostages in exchange for U.S. prisoners of war held by Japan and the Axis powers.

In that program, approximately 3,000 Japanese, Germans, and Italians were forcibly deported to the United States. Over two-thirds or roughly 2,300 were Japanese, and over 80 percent of them were from Peru. They included consular

and diplomatic officials of Axis countries but also, for Japanese Latin Americans, small businessmen, teachers, tailors, and barbers. About half were family members, called voluntary internees, of the targeted men. Peru was active in this program because its government saw it as a convenient way to rid itself of undesirable Japanese Peruvians. In exchange, the United States supplied arms to the Peruvian military. By early 1942, Peru deported about 1,000 Japanese, 300 Germans, and 30 Italians; Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador evicted some 850 Germans, Japanese, and Italians, and 184 were evicted from Panama and Costa Rica.

The roots of that program reached back to before the entry of the United States into World War II. In 1939, with the outbreak of war in Europe, the United States stationed FBI agents in U.S. embassies throughout Latin America to compile information on Axis nationals and sympathizers. After Pearl Harbor in early 1942, the United States led in the formation of the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, comprised of the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The committee, to secure the hemisphere, urged the passage of restrictions against subversion and the internment of Axis nationals. As a result, during the war, 16 Latin American countries interned at least 8,500 Axis nationals, and 12 Caribbean and Central and Latin American nations, including Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador,

Japanese Latin Americans en route to internment camps in the U.S. (AP Photo/National Japanese American Historical Society)

Japanese Latin Americans en route to internment camps in the U.S. (AP Photo/National Japanese American Historical Society)

Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru, shipped their Axis nationals to the United States.

Once in the United States, the State Department held the internees in camps run by the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). When the U.S. government arranged for their expulsion, it provided no visas for Japanese from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Thus, they arrived on U.S. soil as undocumented or illegal immigrants. In most cases, the INS confiscated their passports, and as illegal aliens they were subject to deportation proceedings and repatriation. Moreover, as enemy aliens, Japanese internees were classified as dangerous or believed to be dangerous. Although framed within the legal system, the U.S. government's program operated outside the law.

By July 1942, the United States had deported approximately 1,100 Japanese to Japan and 500 Germans to Germany in exchange for American prisoners of war. The following year, in September 1943, over 1,300 Japanese originally from Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru left New York for Japan. Nearly 40 percent were from Peru. From January to October 1944, Peru deported an additional 700 Japanese men, women, and children, and 70 Germans to the United States, and Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador contributed over 130 enemy aliens to the United States. total. By then, the United States had stopped shipments to Japan and Germany, and the INS internment camps grew overcrowded.

In the summer of 1945, with the war winding down, President Harry Truman issued a proclamation authorizing the deportation of enemy aliens considered to be dangerous to the public peace and safety. Some Latin American countries, fearing the United States would return the enemy aliens to them, wanted them expelled from the hemisphere. After the war, in December 1945, the United States sent to devastated Japan about 800 Peruvian Japanese. Deportation hearings were slow, some former internees challenged their removal from the United States, and others asked to return to their former homes in Latin America. During the first half of 1946, at least 130 Peruvian Japanese went to Japan, from May to October 1946 about 100 Japanese returned to Peru, and during 1945–46, nearly 600 Germans returned to Latin America. Some 300 Japanese Peruvians remained in the United States, and they were finally granted legal residence status in 1954.

Despite suffering forcible removal and detention at the hands of the U.S. government like Japanese Americans, most Japanese Latin Americans were not included in the redress and reparations extended to Japanese Americans in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. They, like Japanese Americans, experienced the trauma of dislocation, separation of families, and considerable economic losses. Most never returned to their countries, homes, and livelihoods that had occupied decades of their productive years.

Seiichi Higashide was born in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1909, migrated to Peru in 1931, was a shopkeeper in Ica, Peru, and in 1942 was seized by police and forcibly deported to the United States where he was interned at the INS camp in Crystal City, Texas. Higashide urged Congress to include Japanese Latin Americans in the redress bill, declaring, “It is imperative that the U.S. proceed to complete

the repair by extending redress to all the Latin American deportees whose rights, wealth, homes and reputation were taken away. It is my fervent prayer and request of this my third and final motherland” (Higashide, 246). Higashide passed away in 1997 in the United States.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Higashide, Seiichi. Adios to Tears: The Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993, 2000.