This Veterans Day Will Japan Finally Apologize to the Last Survivors of Bataan?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Kinue Tokudome

Sixty years ago today, on Armistice Day 1945, millions of World War II veterans were putting their wartime experiences behind them and beginning to get on with their lives. One group of returnees from the Asia Pacific theatre, however, was finding it difficult to recover from physical and mental scars they had suffered during three and a half years of captivity. These were former POWs of Imperial Japan who had somehow survived both the infamous Bataan Death March and slave labor in Japan.

Physical infirmities from constant beatings, hunger and disease combined with the too fresh memories of unspeakable brutalities and executions inflicted on their comrades put these young/old veterans in an unenviable class of their own. The statistics hint at just how desperate their plight had been. Nearly 40% of the over 27,000 American soldiers captured by the Japanese died in their captivity as compared to a 1% death rate for POWs held by Nazi Germany.

But eventually, these brave ex-GIs, bolstered by the love of their families and buoyed by the knowledge that their patriotism and sacrifice had made a difference, did move forward with their lives believing that they had earned a special place in American history. But almost to a man, they felt that something was missing. A simple apology. A public recognition by democratic Japan that the previous wartime regime had violated the basic norms of humanity. Little did they know that 60 years later, the ex POWs would be no closer to having their suffering acknowledged—complicated by Japan’s inability to properly apologize to any of their WWII victims in Asia and subverted by their own State Department!

Following years of frustrating and demeaning silence, ex-POWs took a page from class action lawsuits brought on behalf of victims of the Nazi Holocaust against European Insurance Companies, Banks and industrial giants, and decided to seek justice through the Courts.

In 1999, the state of California enacted a law to enable former POWs of the Japanese to bring an action to recover compensation from their former captors for their wartime slave labor. More than 30 lawsuits were filed against major Japanese corporations, including Mitsui and Mitsubishi. The lawsuits dragged on for nearly five years until all the cases were dismissed in 2004. In the end, it was ruled that the Peace Treaty signed between Japan and the U.S. in 1951 barred any claims of former POWs.

In his dismissal, however, the presiding judge wrote that the sacrifice of POWs of the Japanese deserved to be explicitly recognized. Indeed, many former POW plaintiffs had made it clear that their lawsuits were not about money but about responsibility and honor. They wanted those who treated them inhumanely to take responsibility so that both parties would have an honorable closure to this tragic history.

Yet on Veterans Day 2005, former POWs of the Japanese are still waiting for the Japanese government and companies to acknowledge the wartime slave labor and to offer a sincere apology. The U.S. government, which played an active role in the dismissal of lawsuits by siding with defendant Japanese companies, has not responded to former POWs’ request to facilitate a dialogue with the Japanese side. This is in a stark contrast with the U.S. involvement in the settlement between Nazi slave labor victims and the German government and companies that resulted in the creation of a 5 billion dollar foundation to compensate victims and to support many educational projects. 

In the spring of 2003 in Tokyo, we witnessed Dr. Lester Tenney, who was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and three years of slave labor in Mitsui coal mine, speak to a group of Japanese Diet members. He said, “Forgiving is very difficult for many of the survivors of Japanese forced labor. For them, the ability to forgive requires recognition, remorse and restitution on the part of the offending party. And it is in this vein that I ask my tormentors, the industrial giants of this wonderful country, to admit their wrongdoing, admit their transgressions against humanity and accept responsibility in an honorable way.”

Sixty years is too long a wait for an apology. But Japanese generations yet unborn will live more securely if today’s leaders, who insist on praying at shrines where WWII Class A War Criminals are enshrined, find a moment of moral clarity to bow in clear acknowledgement to Dr. Tenney and his deceased comrades.   

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Kinue Tokudome is the Executive Director of US-Japan Dialogue on POWs