Road from Bataan to Hiroshima/Nagasaki

Kinue Tokudome

Mainichi Shimbun, May 13, 2015 Evening edition


While offering eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II in his address to a joint meeting of the US Congress, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned places such as Pearl Harbor, Bataan Corregidor, and Coral Sea.  As someone who has been trying to inform the Japanese people of the history of the American POWs of the Japanese for the past 15 years, I found that moment very moving.  

Bataan and Corregidor were the places where, in addition to those who lost their lives, the largest number (more than 22,000) of American soldiers in the US military history became POWs.  The names of those places came to symbolize the unspeakable sufferings experienced by the American POWs in the following three and a half years.  

In spite of the international law already established at that time that POWs should be treated humanely, these American POWs were subjected to such severe abuse that 40% of them perished while in captivity.  Mr. Lester Tenney (94) survived the Bataan Death March and was sent to Japan to become a forced laborer for Mitsui Miike coalmine.  Not knowing if he would ever be able to go back home alive, he dug coal day after day with his emaciated body.  Seventy years after those days, Mr. Tenney was invited to the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Abe.

After interviewing Mr. Tenney for an article I was writing for a Japanese magazine in the spring of 1999, Mr. Tenney and I became close friends.  I have been trying to help his goal of “restoring the dignity that was taken away from us POWs and reconciling with Japanese people.”  We have shared our joy at such moments when Mr. Tenney was able to meet with Japanese Ambassador to the US, Ichiro Fujisaki, for the first time, and when he received a Japanese government’s official apology from Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada as Mr. Tenney led the first delegation of former POWs who were invited through the Japanese/US POW friendship program in 2010.  So after the dinner, he sent me an email describing what took place.

It was great that Prime Minister took the time to walk to our table to say hello and shake my hand. That he did so as the head of the Japanese people was so much more important to me. I told the prime minister that I was pleased to play such an important role in the successful Japanese/US POW friendship Program, and he thanked me for my participation. I think my friendship with Ambassador Fujisaki made this possible.

  Prime Minister Abe’s meeting with Mr. Tenney had a much larger historic meaning. President Truman said in his announcement after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima: 

We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.

It tells how American people were outraged by the Pearl Harbor attack and abuse of American POWs by the Japanese at that time.  In that sense, the handshake between Prime Minister Abe and Mr. Tenney might have shown promise of paving the road towards reconciliation from Bataan and Corregidor to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Prime Minister Abe also said in his address, “History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone.”  But I would like to believe that we should be able to learn even a harsh history together.  Dialogue based on sincerity and trust that we will have during such learning is the only way that leads to reconciliation.

Efforts for making such reconciliation happen have already been started by people like Mr. Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Truman, who, in 2013, helped to exhibit a paper crane folded by Sadako, a little girl who died from leukemia after being exposed to the atomic bomb, at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just had a meeting and discussion with those Americans who are working on the planned Manhattan Project National Historical Park.  One new Japanese high school English textbook, which began being used this spring, includes a story of an American POW.  Some of the Japanese companies that used thousands of POWs as forced laborers are finally beginning to take action towards reconciliation. 

  I hope we will continue on that road towards reconciliation as started by the meeting between Prime Minister Abe and Mr. Tenney so that a visit by President Obama to Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be made possible. 

* Kinue Tokudome is the founder and director of “US-Japan Dialogue on POWs”