Courage to Speak Out
Kinue Tokudome

It was 12 years ago today, December 24, 2001, that the late Iris Chang published her op-ed piece entitled “Betrayed by the White House,” in the New York Times.  It was her sharp criticism of Bush administration’s interference into the Congressional action that aimed to give former POWs of the Japanese their day in court regarding their claims against Japanese companies that enslaved them during WWII.

She wrote:

Last month, Congress overwhelmingly approved a provision, added to a spending bill, that would have prevented federal agencies from opposing civil lawsuits by former prisoners of war against Japanese individuals or corporations. The White House succeeded in having the provision struck in a conference committee; the Bush administration feared it might interfere with gathering international support for the war on terrorism…

On September 10, 2001, the day before the 9-11 attacks, the US Senate passed an amendment to the appropriation bill for Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and related agencies for the next fiscal year.  It would prohibit these departments from filing a motion opposing the POW forced labor lawsuits or sending their attorneys to court hearings to argue against former POWs, which the Departments of Justice and State had been doing although the US government was not a party to the lawsuits.  (The heated debate in the Senate on this amendment can be read here.)

A same amendment had been already passed in the House of Representatives.  But when the appropriation bill was later signed by President Bush this amendment was nowhere to be found.  It was a very rare occurrence where an amendment passed by both houses of Congress was later struck.  Ms. Chang concluded:

The decision of the Bush administration to wage a legal fight against its own veterans is shortsighted as well as morally insupportable. A sustained assault against terrorism will require men and women who believe their country and their commander in chief stand behind them. Americans should be ashamed that the government is now prepared to sacrifice the interests of a previous generation of soldiers in order to woo their former enemy.

Our leaders in Washington must not be permitted to sell out the men who gave so much in the fight for freedom. Otherwise, what shall live in infamy will be not only Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, but this unjust betrayal. If we are to have another "greatest generation" we must duly honor the rights of the first one.

Her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, became a best-seller and received great reviews in the US.  But it was viciously attacked by many Japanese people, including Japanese Ambassador to the US, Kunihiko Saito, who criticized it as "full of errors, biased and a one-sided view."

I was the only Japanese writer who wrote an in-depth interview article with Iris during that time.  I am still proud of that article, which I believe helped many Japanese people see Iris for who she really was-- a courageous woman who was not afraid to speak out against injustice.

Re-reading her op-ed piece 12 years later, I cannot help but wonder where Iris, 33 years old at that time, gathered her courage from to even challenge the powers that be.  Indeed, just a few months earlier, three former Ambassadors to Japan, Walter Mondale, Thomas Foley, and Michael Armacost, had co-written their op-ed piece in the Washington Post, arguing that the Congressional support for former POWs of the Japanese  "would undermine our relations with Japan, a key ally. It would have serious, and negative, effects on our national security.” 

These former Ambassadors to Japan tried to appeal to the mood of the post-9-11 America in their criticism of the Congressional support for former POWs of the Japanese during what they described as "a time the president and his administration are trying so hard to forge a coalition to combat terrorism."

After seeing Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki's direct apology to former POWs in 2009, another display of great courage, and the subsequent launch of the successful Japanese/POW Friendship Program (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013)  funded by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, I must say that it is Iris's piece that will stand the test of time.

Iris took her own life in 2004.  She was researching for her next book about the Bataan Death March.  I try to remember her not for the tragic ending of her life, but for the remarkable courage she exhibited during her short but brilliant career as a writer and activist.

Another friend of mine who, like Iris, never lets injustices go unchallenged is Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an internationally renowned Jewish human rights organization.  A few years ago, he took on the last remaining issue of the tragic history of American POWs of the Japanese.

Ms. Iris Chang, Kinue Tokudome and Rabbi Abraham Cooper (1998)

When he heard that the California State Legislature passed a bill requiring companies that tried to bid for high speed rail projects to disclose their history during WWII and that possible bidders included Japanese companies that enslaved American POWs, he spoke out.  He issued the following statement.

August 27, 2010

Wiesenthal Center: Japanese firms must meet same standards demanded of European firms

The Simon Wiesenthal Center praised the passage of AB619, The Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act, in the California Legislature requiring companies submitting bids for the state’s high-speed rail project to disclose any direct involvement in transporting prisoners to Nazi Germany’s extermination camps, work camps, concentration camps, prisoner of war camps, or any similar camps during WWII.

While supporting the bill, written in anticipation of a bid by SNCF, the French rail company that had direct involvement in transporting Jews to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, stressed that the people of California would expect similar disclosures by Japanese companies. Bids for the projects are expected from a Japanese consortium that includes companies like Hitachi, Kawasaki, and Nippon Sharyo. “These important Japanese firms used American POWs for slave labor during WWII and tragically more than 1,000 American POWs perished while in Japan as forced laborers,” he said. “We urge these companies to publicly delineate and acknowledge that part of their corporate and national history and to directly apologize to the few remaining aging ex-GIs who survived those horrors,” Cooper added.

Rabbi Cooper later published an op-ed piece with the same message in the Orlando Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury, newspapers of the two cities where a high speed rail project was planned.  He wrote, "Japanese corporations no longer have to be concerned with lawsuits from their WWII-era slave laborers. But is a handshake and respectful bow asking too much?"

He also arranged a meeting between former POW Dr. Lester Tenney and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meeting arranged By Rabbi Cooper

Speaking out is not easy. We all know that doing nothing is much easier.  But people like Iris Chang and Rabbi Cooper inspire us and make us want to speak out when we see injustice. We need to believe that we have the courage in us to do the right thing.

*   For more about the issue of Japanese companies' responsibility please read
POW Forced Labor: In Search of an Honorable Closure."