Column: Retribution, Reparations, or Just Plain Bad Karma ... Peru and the Fujimori Interlude

News Abroad

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia.

 Whether its Military, History, War tactics and strategies or weaponry Military book club covers it all.

The rather strange, or we should say "bizarre," regime of Alberto Fujimori as president and past-president of Peru continues, while the leader known as "El Chino" lives in exile in Japan. The events of the Fujimori Interlude did not just fall out of the sky onto Peru as if a meteorite coming from outer space. The events have real life origins overlooked yet deserving of some examination and evaluation.

Alberto Fujimori was born in Peru (purportedly) in 1938. His parents were Japanese immigrants. Population pressures and economic problems (especially the effects of the Depression) in Japan led to a major exodus from the Islands. Japanese went in many directions with large numbers coming to the Americas, most to the United States, but among other nations Peru was a leading host country.

Peru needed laborers, especially for farm work, and also for factory production in Amazon rubber region. Many came with contracts forcing them to work for several years. However, when contracts ended, the immigrants gravitated toward urban life in and Lima and the industrial port suburb of Callao. As these immigrants gained personal independence they turned to work in which they could utilize specialized skills they had developed in Japan. They created small businesses and they very willingly competed with existing Peruvian entrepreneurs. Their savvy business skills incurred the wrath of many in their host nation.

Emigration from Japan increased in the early 1930s, and Peruvian officials responded to pressures from Peruvian business interests to stop a wave of new competition. In 1936 Congress passed a new immigration law. The law drastically restricted the flow of Japanese entering the country. Racial "group" immigration was prohibited. Quotas were placed on immigrants returning to Japan and then re-entering Peru. Immigrants were allowed to comprise only 20% of any profession or trade skill area. After the law was passed, Japan officially protested. However, the Peruvian Foreign Minister refused to receive the protest, stating that the law applied to all other nations and not just Japan. However, Foreign Minister Ulloa proclaimed at the time that "their (the Japanese) conditions and methods of working have produced pernicious competition for Peruvian workers." The effect of the law was to stem Japanese migrations, however, there were loopholes in the law Many immigrants hastened to become Peru citizens so they could be excluded from the quotas.

Hostilities persisted. There were many demonstrations against the Japanese. Then, on May 13, 1940, things turned ugly. A protest became a full scale riot. Shops were attacked, looted and burned. Rioters also assaulted Japanese residents. Over 600 structures were damaged, with property losses approaching two million dollars. Ten Japanese were killed, while scores were injured. Japan held Peru responsible. However, the government declined to accept blame, with officials even suggesting that the Japanese provoked the riots. Less than a week later the government issued a decree which temporarily suspended all immigration. That might have been bad, but the worst was yet to come.

Soon nations of the Americas were swept into the events of World War Two. Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. the U.S. Ambassador to Peru told the foreign minister that the situation with Peru would be "delicate" as the country had "so prominent" a Japanese colony. In January 1942, Peru cut off relations with Japan and other Axis nations. (They declared war on Germany and Japan in 1945.) But the United States wanted more. The United States was allowed to establish an airfield at Talara, Peru. Our nation soon developed what in retrospect can be called a paranoia regarding Japanese immigrants (and descendants of immigrants) to the Americas.

The American hunt for "dangerous" Japanese went beyond our own borders. It involved the cooperation of many of the governments of the Americas. Other governments included the Peruvians, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela. These nations were asked to round-up key Japanese leaders and exile them to the United States for confinement. Most did so half-heartedly at best. Peru responded with enthusiasm. Eighty per cent of those expelled to be imprisoned in the United States were from Peru. Estimates suggest that as many as 2,280 Peruvians were shipped to the United States.

Among other motivations, the United States government, according to Michi Weglyn's Years of Infamy (1976) wanted additional persons of Japanese-origins in its detention camps in order to use them in offers for prisoner exchanges or exchanges for American civilians in Japan or elsewhere. It did not matter that the Japanese were Peruvians and in some cases Peru citizens--at least they were not U. S. citizens. Actually there may have been a desire that they not be Peruvian "citizens." The U.S. State Department suggested to President Manual Prado of Peru that a law for denaturalization of naturalized Peru citizens could facilitate their expulsion and transportation to the United States.

The United States paid all expenses in the round-ups and transportation to the detainment camps. The first ship left the Port of Lima (Callao) on April 5, 1942 carrying 141 Japanese Peruvians. Actually 80 went "voluntarily," that is, they claimed a desire to leave, fearing further violence against their persons and property in Peru.

Actually protection of their property was a "moot point," as the government of President Prado had seized most Japanese-Peruvian property including a large cotton ranch and a saw mill. The president distributed much of the property to personal friends. A second ship took 342 out in June. These early ships also carried Germans and Italians under somewhat similar circumstances.

These voluntarily and "kidnapped" passengers were moved first to Kenedy, Texas where there were placed in an abandoned CCC camp. Later some were moved to Seagoville, Texas, or Santa Fe, New Mexico. But the largest number including those in later shiploads went to Crystal City, Texas, 110 miles south of San Antonio. There they were placed into what was previously a migrant work camp. The camp also held 1000 Germans.

Eight hundred of the Japanese "not quite" prisoners of war from Peru were actually exchanged for American prisoners of war held by the Japanese nation. Others were encouraged to return to Japan "voluntarily." Many reluctantly did when arrangements were made to have members of their families still residing in Peru also sent to Japan.

After the end of the War, Peru refused (until 1953) to accept a return of any of these Peruvian-Japanese internees who had been held in the United States, or who had been sent to Japan. They pushed to send the ones still in the United States to the now war-devastated Japan although most had never set foot on Japanese soil in their lifetimes. Others remained confined in the American internment camps well into 1946. The United States government finally acquiesced to allow hundreds to remain in the United States as "freed" persons who eventually could become citizens. A large contingent, over 200 in number, went to Seabrook Farms in New Jersey. They were given $25 and a railroad ticket from Texas. There they were farm workers along with many new refugees from Europe.

All these internees from Peru (whether Japanese, German, or Italian) were non-(U.S.A.) Americans. Therefore, they have not been prominent on the radar screen when the injustices to internees is engaged as an issue. Crystal City is not even considered one of our ten U. S. internee camps. Also the oversight supports the continuing myth that we did not hold Germans or Italians in internment. We did. They were civilians, but they were not U.S. citizens. They were Peruvians.

After decades of pressure from Japanese Americans for some justice, along with support from myriad civil rights contingents, Congress passed a Reparations Act in 1988. It was signed by President Reagan on August 10, 1988. Each surviving detainee from a Japanese-American internment camp was given $20,000.

However, in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno decreed that no grant would be given to the Peruvian internees, even to those who remained in the United States. She read the Act to apply only to citizens of the United States or to resident aliens. She determined that when the Peruvian-Japanese were brought to the United States they were not citizens but rather "illegal aliens," albeit they were brought here by American vessels at a cost to the American government, and with a modicum of force.

In 1997 members of Congress asked President Clinton to include the Latin American internees in the reparation payments, but he declined, saying he was not empowered to define the group into the provisions of the 1988 Act. However, as the result of a court action, in 1998, the Department of Justice agreed that the Peruvian detainees could receive $5000 each.

Six hundred pressed claims, but 1,300 were eligible for the one-fourth shares. Sort of reverts one's mind back to the days of the constitutional convention, where one group of Americans was considered a fraction of the worth--in that case 3/5th--of another American. There is a continued campaign seeking full equity in reparations for these Americans (and other Peruvians internees).

The equity answer may now reside in Japan. After the 11 year reign of Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvian president abandoned his land in November 2000 for a self-imposed exile in Japan. As he left, charges were renewed--now officially--that he had engaged in a long campaign of corruption and theft of monies from the public treasury and other funds, including charity money given to Peru for social causes by residents of Japan.

His "thefts" were considered to be as much as ten million dollars or more. His chief advisor profited so much from thefts and drug money that his frozen bank accounts had $70 million in deposits. A Fujimori military leader had a Swiss account of $14.5 million, while $9 billion from the sale of government businesses to further Fujimori policies of privatization also seemed to have disappeared.

Fujimori sought and won Japanese citizenry, claiming that his parents registered him as a Japanese citizen when he was born in 1938. Some Peruvians support the rumor that he may have actually been born in Japan--but as Peru did not allow Japanese immigration after 1936 (until the 1950s), that is unlikely. Nonetheless, in a country where it is a difficult and long path for a non-native son to win citizenship, Fujimori was made a citizen within a month of his arrival in exile.

Japan refuses to extradite their new citizen as a matter of general policy. They say if he is a criminal, he will be subject to their justice system. Ironically, Fujimori has, some say, expressed a desire to return to Peru and seek the presidency again. He has also explored running for a seat in Japan's Diet.

Perhaps he should be allowed to do so. A former president Alan Garcia, was charged with political corruption and theft after he departed to Colombia and France where he remained in exile during Fujimori's reign. But in 2001 he returned and he was allowed to run for president, as a prodigal son returned. Peru's Supreme Court had ruled that a statue of limitations had run its course.

However, should the Court permit a return in a condition other than in handcuffs, Fujimori should be required to make a full return of the money he stole. But the money should not go back to Peru. The money should go to his fellows of Japanese heritage who received only 25 percent of their due compensation, as well as others who were sent to Japan---for the indignities as well as the property losses incurred at hands of the Peru government--and the government of the United States. If he returns but $19.5 million, reparations for the 1,300 "eligibles" could be fully funded. Indeed, one might speculate that Fujimori's indiscretions (the financial ones) were but an alternative method for directing reparations to Japanese Peruvians of the World War II era. Equity is still required.


Thomas Connell, American Japanese Hostages (2002); C. Harvey Gardiner, The Japanese and Peru (1975); Leslie Hatamiya, Righting a Wrong (1993); Peter Klaren, Peru (2000); Richard L. Vazquez, "Justice for Japanese Latinos,", 2000; Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy (1976).

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Gregory T. Cushman - 1/23/2003

It is good that this essayist brought attention to the unfortunate fate of many Japanese-Peruvians and their just cause to obtain reparations for their suffering. However, it is inaccurate on MANY points, especially the motivations of 1940s Peru's political class (led by Pres. Manuel Prado) in using anti-Japanese xenophobia to cement a special alliance with the United States. Moreover, the connection to Fujimori's present situation is tenuous, at best.

Those who want to understand Fujimori's rapid rise might see Klarén's textbook history (Oxford UP). But the best source is Luis Jochamowitz's bio _Ciudadano Fujimori: La construcción de un político_ (1st ed., Lima, 1993--now in several editions).

Haven't read this book? Don't read Spanish? Then why are you commenting on recent Peruvian politics? Safranski's reply on how F. was elected is factually false, as is the essayist's account of Fujimori's path to citizenship. (It was pro-forma, a Japanese law clearly stated that children of immigrants born abroad before a certain year had an automatic right to citizenship. If I am not mistaken, F. was already registered as a Japanese citizen BEFORE he ran for President, and carefully hid it. He was DEFINITELY born in Peru.)

Want a short (10 pp.) account of how Fujimori rose to power? E-mail me at, and I'll send you a section of my dissertation. The short answer? Fujimori was the quintessential political outsider at a time when existing political parties were at an impasse. He promised "Honesty, technology, and work" each time he rode to a political rally on a tractor, while his main opponent, literary star Mario Vargas Llosa promised harsh, neoliberal "shock therapy." Fujimori was both shrewd and lucky enough to arrive on the scene during a decade when technocrats rose to power all over Latin America--and the world for that matter.

Even we in the United States have a President with a Ph.D. in economics from the London School of Economics and a Nobel Prize--but only each Wednesday night on NBC's West Wing. Too bad.

Am I wasting my time writing this stuff? A lot of ignorant folk seem to have A LOT of time to write nonsense replies to this site. This may be my last posting, ever.

roger daniels - 1/19/2003

William Thompson's interesting essay has a number of small errors
about the Peruvian Jaanese brought here during WW II which would have been corrected had he used C. Harvey Gardiner's Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981 and/or his brief summary update in “The Latin-American Japanese and World War II,” pp. 142-45 in Daniels et al., eds. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Seattle: University of Washington Press,
Revised edition, 1991.

mark safranski - 1/19/2003

A three-way race between a discredited leftist incumbent ( Garcia)and a feared right-wing free-marketeer. Fujimori was a blank slate alternative

jerome foster - 1/17/2003

If there was so much prejudice against Japanese in Peru how did Fujimori get to be president?