Unfinished Business

For 65 years, Japanese corporations have escaped responsibility for abusing American POWs during World War II.

Creative Commons license
Creative Commons license

Lester Tenney entered World War II as a strapping 21-year-old, weight 180 pounds. By the time he emerged from Japanese captivity in 1945, he was a shattered, emaciated cripple. His left arm and shoulder were partly paralyzed due to an accident in a coal mine where he’d been sent as a slave laborer. His overseers there — civilian employees of the Mitsui Corp., not members of the Imperial Army — had knocked out his teeth in repeated beatings with hammers and pickaxes. At war’s end, he weighed in at 98 pounds. It took him a year in U.S. Army hospitals to regain something like a semblance of his old well-being.

Sixty-five years later, Tenney and his fellow ex-prisoners of war (POWs) — the rapidly diminishing group of those who remain alive, that is — are still awaiting the full fruits of victory. The Japanese companies that once abused Tenney and his fellow prisoners have never acknowledged responsibility for their crimes, let alone offered compensation or regrets of any kind. (The companies needed the POWs to compensate for a wartime labor shortage.) The Japanese government has only just begun to offer its regrets for what happened — far too late for most of the veterans, but, still, something. Perhaps most depressingly of all, the U.S. government has spent years allowing the Japanese to get away with it — a policy of complicity that has its roots in the two countries’ complex postwar relationship. There are signs that this, too, may finally be changing. Hope never dies, as they say.

I was reminded of all this recently, when the story popped up again. Most Americans, I suspect, have never heard about this rather depressing tale — which brings us to yet another set of culprits: the media. I must count myself among those responsible in this particular group. A few years ago I was the Tokyo bureau chief for one of the big American news magazines. I met Tenney in Japan and accompanied him as he spoke to Japanese school classes, and watched as he got his story out to the new generation. But I wasn’t able to interest my editors in the story. It wasn’t anything nefarious on their part. They just weren’t terribly interested in Japan, and even less so in tales about Japan’s bad behavior during the war. Surely that was well-trodden ground — hadn’t I ever seen The Bridge On the River Kwai?

I can’t entirely blame them, I guess. Forget, for a moment, the fact that an extraordinary 40 percent of the Allied POWs in Japanese hands never came back. Forget the fact that those who survived suffered from the highest rates of "combat fatigue" — what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder — of all of America’s World War II veterans. Forget the fact that selling the prisoners to some 60 different Japanese companies represented a crass violation of the laws of war — and that the way they were treated while working for the companies contravened the Imperial Army’s own guidelines. Forget the fact that Chinese and Korean prisoners and forced laborers are still pressing (unsuccessfully) to have their claims recognized by Japanese courts. It was all a long time ago.

There’s another problem. This happens to be one of those stories that come wrapped in the myriad legal and political subtleties that tend to accompany explorations of sins committed by governments in the past. In this case, for example, you have to do a bit of explaining about the peculiar history of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In 1951, as the Cold War was burning red hot in Korea, Washington realized that it needed a renascent Japan as its bulwark against communist designs on the Far East, and signed a set of agreements designed to wind up wartime claims and ensure Tokyo’s loyalty to the Western camp in the decades to come. In one of those documents the Japanese agreed to let the Americans station troops on their territory, while in another — the San Francisco Peace Treaty — the Americans agreed to give the Japanese a pass on reparations. Article 16 of the treaty obligated the Japanese to pay a token amount to the International Red Cross "for the benefit of former prisoners of war" — but the text carefully avoided describing the payment as "compensation," which might have created a precedent. No further claims by POWs would be recognized.

The former U.S. prisoners themselves never got anything from Japan — and certainly not what they craved most, which was an official acknowledgment of the savage treatment that had been meted out to them not only by the Imperial Army in its prison camps, but also by the dozens of companies that used captured soldiers as laborers. (None of the companies ever paid the men for their work at the time, it should be noted.) It was not until 1995, under Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, that Japan offered its first, unequivocal official apology for Japan’s wartime conduct. Over the years the Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch, and New Zealand governments managed to convince the Japanese that it would be in their interest to offer the ex-prisoners a gesture of goodwill. So Tokyo proceeded to invite ex-prisoners from those countries back to Japan on all-expense-paid trips — an odd form of ersatz apology.

But the American POWs were left out — and their own government was shockingly eager to leave it at that. Raison d’état — in this case, the priority of keeping the U.S.-Japan alliance running smoothly — trumped justice. "The Americans have been almost a hundred percent complicit in this," says Mindy Kotler, a Washington-based Japan expert  who works for the think tank Asia Policy Point. "They allowed the Japanese to not be accountable. They’ve given them a pass on the same values we hold dear."

When the U.S. survivors tried to push the Japanese to offer them similar treatment, the U.S. State Department sat on its hands — as did many in Congress. Tenney testified before Congress on numerous occasions, but bills demanding action on the ex-prisoners’ behalf inevitably died in committee, torpedoed by lawmakers eager to avoid tensions with Tokyo. The stillborn legislation included one measure that would have paid each surviving POW a one-off sum of $15,000 in acknowledgment of their wartime suffering. "Our Congress and our senators did a lousy job," says Tenney. (He then hastens to offer praise for the few who have stood up for the vets, naming Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). When the veterans tried to sue the Japanese companies that once exploited their labor, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t even deign to consider their cases. (State and Justice Department officials actually filed briefs opposing the veterans’ claims in the lower courts on the grounds that they disturbed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.)

At least we can finally talk about a bit of progress. Last year the Japanese parliament, the Diet, quietly issued an apology that finally included references to the POWs — one that amounts to official recognition of Japan’s moral responsibility for the prisoners’ wartime suffering. And in May of last year the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, offered an apology of his own, echoing the 1995 government declaration, at a San Antonio gathering of some of the surviving American prisoners. Not all of the Americans were mollified, though Tenney says that the ambassador’s sally "took a lot of courage," given the bitterness among some of the veterans. And now even the folks at Foggy Bottom seem to be coming around. Within the past few months, the Japanese have offered to invite some of the remaining POWs over for visits, and U.S. diplomats have been working with officials in Tokyo to make it happen. So far the sum of money involved — $180,000 — is pitiable, only enough for a mere seven men (plus caregivers and spouses). But even that small effort represents a break with a shameful past.

And the companies? "They’ve never offered one dime," says Tenney. "Never an apology." It’s actually hard to see what would prevent them from doing so — other than the shame of acknowledging their responsibility for acts committed long ago. The ex-prisoners’ demands certainly don’t represent any economic threat. (The company that exploited Tenney’s labor, Mitsui, is today one of the world’s biggest corporations — it owns a 10 percent stake in the drilling operation that is currently hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico — and its website offers an elaborate declaration of its affirmation of human rights.) And Tenney insists that it’s not money he and his comrades are after — just a proper apology from corporate Japan. You’d think that wouldn’t be so hard to come by. But you would be wrong.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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