By Alberto J. Matsumoto Translated by Kora McNaughton For The North American Post
Migration from Japan officially began more than 150 years ago, starting with Japanese arriving in Hawaii, the United States, and Canada, and later Peru and Brazil just over 100 years ago. During that time, Japan has faced several wars, notably with China (1894-95), Russia (1904-05), and several Asian countries as a result of the imperial occupation that began in the 1920s. And finally, World War II, a grueling conflict with the United States. Each of these events brought a great deal of uncertainty and misery to Japanese migrants.
In the late 1930s, there were about 300,000 Japanese and Nikkei living in the United States (including Hawaii), but when war broke out about 120,000 Japanese people were forced into detention camps by the federal government. Many Nisei who were American citizens volunteered to join the army to prove their loyalty to the United States and fight on the European front (a unit with high human loss but also accomplishing great achievements— thus becoming the most decorated in the history of the U.S. Army for its size).
The Nikkei were aware that they had to fight directly (as spies) or indirectly (on another front) against Japan, the country their parents had come from. However, through the military achievements of these units, Nikkei slowly regained the trust of American society and even achieved important recognition, mainly in the 1990s from the government and the media, which reported on what really happened.
All over the world, when the country to which immigrants have arrived goes to war or engages in border conflicts or civil war, immigrants must also take risks and sometimes very difficult decisions. That has also happened with Europeans fleeing persecution and the destruction of war who have sought refuge in North and South America.
During the last century there were also wars in Latin America due to border conflicts or struggles for control of resources, and in the 1970s many were affected by the violence of revolutionary guerrillas who practically provoked civil war in countries like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and later Peru in the 1980s (Nikkei and their families who fled to Japan in the 1990s did so not just out of economic necessity but also to escape the insecurity generated by terrorism). Argentina experienced significant terrorism and when the military took power, it carried out a campaign of reprisals against armed groups. Among its targets were some Nikkei who were imprisoned because of student or union activities, and some who disappeared (the bodies of others were found in mass graves).
In 1982, Argentina staged a military invasion of the Malvinas Islands (Falkland Islands), leading to the Malvinas War, which lasted two and a half years. Several Nikkei, myself included, participated in that war (there were about 5 or 6 Nikkei soldiers and 2 or 3 officials).
The troops landed in the Malvinas on April 2 and many Argentines, including top-level government officials, believed that negotiations for a peace agreement would occur with the presence of U.N. peacekeepers. But within a week, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a fleet of more than 100 ships (including support).The conflict ended in an unprecedented confrontation with a great deal of losses on both sides; on June 14, Puerto Argentino finally fell with Argentina’s surrender. In total, 649 Argentine troops were killed, including more than 300 marines on the cruiser General Belgrano, and 1,100 soldiers were wounded. The regiment I belonged to lost 11 men.
I was in the Malvinas because I had done military service the previous year and when the invasion occurred, while we were following the events, I went to sign up at my unit like many others. We were sent to the south and then to the Malvinas. Our little section was assigned to perform security tasks near the airport and the city and several companies in the regiment were located in the western part of the city, where the British soon arrived. That’s where the bloodiest confrontations of the war occurred, with a large number of deaths on both sides (the British now acknowledge that there were many more casualties than officially declared).
Despite the fact that our forces were not well-equipped or trained for that terrain, it was also a difficult battle for the British, who had to disembark and advance almost 100 kilometers to the capital. They admit that it wasn’t a “picnic” and had to endure constant attacks and counter-attacks on difficult terrain in a climate where it can get as cold as 10º C below zero at night.
In the final days our section also mobilized to support the retreat of our troops, but on June 14 we were ordered to suspend all operations. We were held as prisoners by the British for five days, but soon after that we were sent to Buenos Aires.
Within a year after that, the Argentine military regime was out and Radical Party candidate Alfonsín won the presidential election. Many military veterans were later brought to trial both for activities during the war and during the fight against terrorism. But in the 1990s the Menem administration decreed a “forgetting” law (legal amnesty), ending those trials. However, the Kirchner administration that came into power in 2003 adopted a completely different policy, invalidating the amnesty law and starting a new series of trials in which military officials at various levels were arrested and prosecuted.
Within this political context, career military officials who served in the Malvinas experienced a great deal of uncertainty about the changes and reforms within military institutions. After we were discharged, we were treated like “heroes” but many also viewed us as part of the military regime because of our participation in the war. Yet others see us as part of a dichotomy: “soldiers” (victims) vs. “officers and noncommissioned officers” (the aggressors or bad guys).
For the governments in power after the return to democracy and mainly for those who fought for human rights, valuing what we did was also an implicit way of recognizing the work of the armed forces, which for some was unacceptable. For many of us at least, the Malvinas veterans are soldiers, officers, and noncommissioned officers, not only solders as some want to identify us, apart from whether certain things happened that no one is proud of. But camaraderie continues for those of us who went, and many of us are lifelong friends. Many officials, some retired and others active, have supported the reintegration and social coexistence of former soldiers.
As part of the celebration two years ago of the Bicentenary of the May Revolution, almost all units of the armed forces paraded before the government authorities, but not one unit of Malvinas veterans was allowed to participate, which angered many. But a group of veterans was able to get past security and unfurl a large banner reading “Glory for the 649 Malvinas heroes” in front of the president herself.
Having experienced war myself, I must say it is an opportunity to witness all of the virtues and cruelty of human beings, regardless of their rank, education, or social status. Camaraderie is strengthened when combat becomes a reality, at least in many cases, because it helps you deal with the dayto-day tension. In fact, when human relationships become unsustainable, that can leave a trail of hate and resentment that lasts forever. But as you become more aware of everything that happened in that conflict, you begin to understand what has happened and put aside rancor in specific situations that occur in every group of people. In my unit there is a truly amazing sense of camaraderie and even friendship that has continued even with the children of officers and noncommissioned officers.
The old “veterans” and their families meet up at each anniversary or event that is held and in many places associations of former combatants have formed. This is most common in cities that have provided space for remembrance with monuments or plaques recognizing local residents who died or served in the Malvinas.
However, these last 30 years have been very hard for those involved in the war, both soldiers and career military personnel, since we haven’t been able to escape the politicization or ideologization of the Malvinas War.
In March 2012, I returned to the islands for the first time in three decades. What I saw was an island with a great future, with income from fishing licenses, with wealthy tourists arriving on international cruise ships for stopovers (about 45,000 tourists per year), a very high potential for offshore oil drilling in the coming years, and all the public works and services needed to support that activity. The island’s GDP is estimated at around US $200 million and per capita income is more than US $40,000. Despite some restrictions due to measures taken by the Argentine government, the two supermarkets on the island are well stocked with merchandise and the people there live comfortably. There are almost 3,000 people living on the island, about one-tenth of whom are foreigners.
The island’s residents, it seems, are preparing to hold a referendum on selfdetermination to define their relationship with the United Kingdom, which has solidified. It gives you the feeling that the 2,000 troops stationed at the Mount Pleasant base will continue there.
Thirty years have passed but it’s been only 30 years—you can look at it both ways, since the consequences of war take 50 to 100 years to distill, depending on the historical context and the willingness of the parties. While a vision for the future is necessary to negotiate the issue of Malvinas sovereignty, I believe that the Argentine people need to reflect on the significance of April 2 (the anniversary of a heroic feat and recovery of the islands for us, an invasion and the start of an occupation to them) and June 14 (surrender and withdrawal for us, liberation by the British troops to them) to find common ground.
Wars are always a true test of soldiers (in a broad sense), of society, and the state. It has also been a realm for maximum expression of human loyalty, love for country and its people, and to defend what’s yours or what you believe is best for all. That’s why those who have died deserve to be recognized, respected, and to have our gratitude forever, regardless of the historical, political, or ideological interpretation of those events. Excessive revisionism and illusory patriotism aren’t helpful in honoring the dead, because they obscure the lessons we must learn from war to build a better future.
And children of immigrants like myself should bear witness of our gratitude to be citizens of this land and having had the opportunity to serve our country.
Editor’s note: The article was originally posted on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei at www.discovernikkei.org.