Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Restitution and history lessons

Imagine this:

2,500 innocent residents of country A are kidnapped by the armed forces of country B, transported across the seas and held in forced labor camps, and held as trade bait for country C.  Sounds like something from antiquity, yes?  Something involving the Greeks and Persians, perhaps.  Or, at the very least, something involving Kim Jong-Il.

Except: Country A is Peru, country B is the United States (the forced labor camps were in Texas), country C is Japan, and the years were 1942-1945.

We are all familiar with the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps and the infamous Korematsu decision that upheld that practice. 

But did you know that 2,500  Latin Americans of Japanese descent -- men, women, and children -- were kidnapped by the United States military from Bolivia and Peru, transported to the U.S. in deplorable conditions, and held for years in forced labor camps in the Texas desert?

One result of researching restitution issues is that you discover the most unbelievable stories. 

The U.S. apparently thought the Japanese would be willing to trade Americans held by Japan for these innocents.  They weren't. 

Worse still: when the war ended, these innocent people were deported for having entered the United States illegally(!) and forcibly patriated (not re-patriated, mind you) to war-ravaged occupied Japan, where most had never been before.  Many could not speak Japanese.   

A final insult to add to the injury: Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1998, under which Japanese-Americans interned during the war received restitution of $20,000 each.  But these victims weren't Japanese-Americans, so they didn't qualify under the Act.  Instead, through a class-action lawsuit, most received a settlement of $5,000 each (see Mochizuki v. United States, 43. Fed.Cl. 97 (1999)). 

Chief Judge Smith of the Federal Court of Claims attached to his moving settlement order the affidavits of several victims.  They make for sobering, shocking reading.  These were people well-settled in their lives in Peru and Bolivia, business owners and farmers, many born there.  They lost everything.  One affiant recounts the haunting image from his childhood of his father being dragged away, shouting to him, but being unable to hear what his father was trying to tell him.

Restitution, to my mind, is the most difficult of all property issues.  Restitution is almost never adequate, and usually it does not even come close.  Moreover, the effects of time often make claims for restitution untenable -- the property taken is no longer there, or the entities that took it no longer exist, or the person from whom it was taken is dead, or the person who currently holds it is innocent too.

But one benefit of restitution issues is that they require us, to the extent possible, to look history squarely in the face.  Sometimes the view is suprisingly uncomfortable.

Mark Edwards

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Its terrible how this is neatly swept under the 'Pearl Harbour' carpet and never spoken of in American history. British prisoner of war camps were outstanding conditions, soilders worked but when set free were allowed to stay in the country and contribute to the recovering economy. It's one of the few things that went well during the war.

Posted by: House Rent Wirral | Jul 2, 2010 2:49:09 AM

What an awful, and untold, story.

In the 1980s I wrote about the interment camp and restitution issue when I was a reporter at the LATimes, but had no idea about this, which makes me wonder now what other stories about the American mistreatment of people of Japanese ancestry lie out there.

Posted by: David Cay Johnston | Jul 3, 2010 4:31:36 PM

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