Isamu Shibayama Dies at 88, His Quest for Reparations Unfulfilled

Isamu Shibayama, known as Art, in Seabrook, N.J., in 1952 after being drafted into the Army. It would take him 18 years to finally be granted citizenship.

Until he turned 11½, Isamu Shibayama’s childhood was idyllic.

His father was a successful textile importer and dress-shirt wholesaler in Lima, Peru. His house was staffed by servants. He was chauffeured to private school. He spent summers living on the coast with his grandparents, who owned a department store, and swimming in the Pacific.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Isamu’s father was playing tennis when news of the air raid was broadcast. He was immediately summoned home. His family and their friends were frightened. But even with anti-Japanese sentiment spreading in Peru, nobody predicted what would happen next.

The Shibayama family, joining nearly 2,000 others of Japanese heritage living in Peru, were rounded up by the police, turned over to American troops and shipped to prison camps in Texas and other states. They would remain there from 1942 to 1944, sharing the fate of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans who were also interned.

In boarding a chartered military troop ship bound for New Orleans, Isamu Shibayama embarked on what would prove to be a three-decade struggle to become an American citizen. Until then, his wife, Betty Shibayama, said last year, “he was a man without a country.”

Even more, his forced removal from the country in which he was born set him on a lifetime quest for a formal apology and reparations from the United States government.

Mr. Shibayama did become a citizen. But when he died on July 31 in San Jose, Calif., at 88 a retired gas station owner, his ultimate mission remained unfulfilled.

Just last year, after he had given up on getting satisfaction in United States courts, he appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an agency of the Washington-based Organization of American States.

At a hearing to determine whether Mr. Shibayama and two of his brothers had been victims of human rights violations during World War II, the commission’s president, Francisco Jose Eguiguren Praeli, a former Peruvian justice minister, expressed his personal apologies. But the commission had yet to issue any formal findings when Mr. Shibayama died.

Washington’s agenda in expatriating the Peruvians of Japanese descent from Latin America was twofold. One aim, the government said, was to make the nation’s southern border less vulnerable to infiltration or attack; the other was to provide a pool of people of Japanese ethnicity who might be traded for American civilians stranded in Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Whatever resistance the policy generated in Peru, it was tempered by the same kind of anti-Japanese prejudice that the war had stoked in the United States.

Moreover, there was a growing consensus that expelling the ethnic Japanese, particularly those who ran businesses, would reduce competition for other Peruvians struggling in a depressed economy.

Japanese began migrating to Peru in the late 19th century, mostly as contract laborers, but many moved to the cities and had become, like Mr. Shibayama’s father, successful entrepreneurs.

Isamu Shibayama was born on June 6, 1930, in Lima, Peru’s capital. He was the eldest of eight children of Yuzo and Tatsue (Ishibashi) Shibayama, immigrants from Fukuoka, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. He was baptized Carlos Arturo Isamu and came to be called Art for short.

After the war broke out, his grandparents in Peru were among the first to be seized. Sent to the United States, they were put in a detention camp for enemy aliens in Seagoville, Tex., near Dallas, until they were deported to Japan in an exchange for Americans held there.

In Peru, Mr. Shibayama’s father went into hiding, but he turned himself in after his wife and 11-year-old daughter were arrested.

After being shipped to New Orleans, the family was taken by train to the federal government’s largest wartime internment camp, in Crystal City, Tex., southwest of San Antonio.

Mr. Shibayama recalled that as a schoolboy he had difficulty in classes taught in English and Japanese — his primary language was Spanish — but managed to finish the eighth grade. Around the camp, he delivered mail and ice and joined the baseball team.

When the war ended, in 1945, the family was warned that they would be unwelcome in Peru. But neither were they embraced in their new home. The American authorities classified them as illegal immigrants on the grounds that they had entered the country without proper authorization.

Mr. Shibayama said he was confounded by the government’s position. In an interview with Discover Nikkei, an advocacy group that says it supports “Japanese migrants and their descendants,” he asked, “How can I be illegal when we didn’t want to come here in the first place, and the government brings us, brings us here, forces us to come here, and they bring us at gunpoint?”

With the war over, his family was scheduled to be deported to Japan, by then a devastated country enduring shortages of food and other staples. The family was unwilling to go.

They were rescued by Wayne M. Collins, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who intervened and arranged to have Mr. Shibayama’s father hired by Seabrook Farms, a frozen-vegetable packing factory in New Jersey. The family was paroled and moved there, settling in the town of Seabrook.

In time the family moved to Chicago. In 1952, though still classified as an illegal immigrant, Mr. Shibayama was drafted into the Army and deployed to Germany. He was honorably discharged two years later.

After returning to Chicago, he took the advice of solicitous immigration officials and traveled to Canada so that he could re-enter the United States from there. Once he did, he was told that he could qualify for permanent residency but would have to live in the United States for about five years before he was eligible for citizenship.

In the interim, he took a mechanics course, was hired by a car dealer and married Betty Morita, a Japanese-American who had lived on a farm in Oregon before she, too, was sent to an internment camp.

She survives him, along with their children, Bekki and Brian; his brothers, Ken, Tac and George; and his sister, Rose Nishimura. His death was confirmed by his daughter.

Mr. Shibayama received permanent resident status in 1956 and was finally granted citizenship in 1970, the same year he moved to California.

After the Office of Redress Administration was established as part of the Justice Department in 1988 to indemnify Japanese-Americans who had been interned, Mr. Shibayama applied for reparations. His request was denied; only Japanese-Americans who had been citizens or permanent residents during the war were eligible, and he, of course, had been neither.

Years later, a coalition of Japanese Latin Americans called the Campaign for Justice sued for reparations and won its case. In 1999, the federal government expressed regret and awarded each of them $5,000 (compared with the $20,000 in tax-free restitution being paid to Americans of Japanese descent).

Mr. Shibayama, however, declined the payment and sued on his own. When he lost in federal court, he and two of his brothers, Ken and Tac, filed their petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2002. That body can issue findings, mediate and refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is also overseen by the Organization of American States.

Sixteen years later, Art Shibayama’s brothers are still awaiting a decision.

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