Letter to my American Friends

Japanese POW Internment in Siberia : 60 Years Later
The Japanese Government Is Betraying Old Soldiers and Justice

Koichi Ikeda

The calm yet firm message by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, "This Veterans Day Will Japan Finally Apologize to the Last Survivors of Bataan?" prompted me to write a few words of my own. That is because I myself was a POW during World War II. 

When you were observing the Armistice Day 60 years ago, we soldiers of the Japanese Kwantung Army were enduring hard labor and hunger in bitter cold Siberia. The "Siberian Internment" took place after we had laid down our arms at the Emperor's order. Some came home after 2 years while there were others who could not return for 10 years. I am one of the 600,000 victims of this disaster, of which 60,000 or even 100,000 were said to have perished. Numbers are yet to be determined.

Human wisdom in modern times made the development of International law possible where humane treatment of POWs was codified. However, in the middle of a hate-ridden war, it is not easy to maintain such virtues. Needless to say, the harsh treatment of POWs in the militaristic Japan and the Soviet Union under Stalin, the two least developed regimes in terms of human rights, was beyond description. From my own experience in the Soviet Union, I can truly empathize with the anger and longing for justice of American POWs of the Japanese.

Like Rabbi Cooper, I was there in the spring of 2003 when Dr. Lester Tenney spoke to Japanese Diet members. He was suing Mitsui Company for the wartime slave labor. I was moved by the following statement that Dr. Tenney made:

"Responsibility and forgiveness go hand in hand. One without the other is meaningless. I will forgive if the government of Japan and company take responsibility for their wrongdoings."

The suffering and humiliation that Dr. Tenney and I experienced are not easy to forgive. But he will not be at peace unless he forgives and I will have to end my life without peace if I don't reconcile with my country. Therefore, Dr. Tenney's words, which resonate with Buddha's wishes, became my own.

What former POWs from both sides of the Pacific want is, as Rabbi Cooper stated, for those who treated them inhumanely to take responsibility so that both parties would have an honorable closure to this tragic history. 

Having felt the same way, I filed a lawsuit against the government of Japan in 1999 seeking the payment for the hard labor of blood, sweat and tear during our internment in the Soviet Union. Like Dr. Tenney, I lost my case because the Japanese government rejected my claim and the judge agreed with it.

But I suspect this is a double-dealing. In response to our argument that the Japanese government, having waived all the claims against the Soviet Union by signing the Joint Declaration by the USSR and Japan in 1956, should compensate the Siberian forced labor victims, the Japanese government had long been telling us that it was only the claim of the Japanese government that was waived, not our individual claims. Yet, in the POW lawsuits in the U.S., the Japanese government sided with the Japanese defendant companies and said that all the claims, including those of former POWs, against Japan were waived by the Peace Treaty and that there is no obligation for companies to compensate former POWs. The Japanese government is essentially saying two opposite things and as a result they would not pay either POWs of the Japanese or the Japanese who were POWs. 

Dr. Tenney and I experienced similar suffering and humiliation and are both seeking justice. While Dr. Tenney is trying to hold those who abused him accountable, former Siberian internees like myself are fighting not against Russia (former Soviet Union), but against our own country, a country which I truly love. It is indeed heartbreaking to be angered by the cold-heartedness of my own country than by the actual sufferings in Siberia.


       Former campsite in Uzbekistan where Mr. Ikeda was interned  (taken by Mr. Ikeda in 1976) 

Why did the Siberian Internment occur? It was an act of massive human rights violation by Stalin who ignored the Potsdam Declaration. He took 600,000 Japanese soldiers and used their labor to rebuild his own country. This was in reality "reparation by labor" and we were sacrificed for the maintenance of Japanese nation state and preservation of the Emperor. If it was reparation by labor, why would the Soviet Union compensate for our labor? Nodding to each other without words, Japan and the Soviet Union closed the case in 1956 by signing the Joint Declaration by the USSR and Japan whose article 6 stipulated, "The USSR and Japan agree to renounce all claims by either State..."    

This is how the Soviet Union (Russia) got away with not taking the legal responsibility of compensating POWs. Yet, the moral responsibility seemed to have bothered Russian leaders, and both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the wrongdoing of Siberian Interment to the Japanese people and bowed in deep remorse. Russia, then, took care of this issue only with an apology without paying a single ruble.

I must ask, however, if the Soviet Union (Russia) did not act too inhumanely and cunningly. While other Allied nations on which Japanese military inflicted enormous sufferings, especially your country, the United States, and Asian countries, with unprecedented benevolence, forwent their claims for reparation and allowed Japan to retain its territorial integrity on its home islands, the Soviet Union, by virtue of participating in the war only for a few days, grabbed the Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands and occupied four Northern Islands. On top of that, they benefited from the labor of the Siberian internees, which could be close to 70 billion US dollars in monetary terms. This might have invoked Article 26 of San Francisco Peace Treaty which read, "Should Japan make a peace settlement or war claims settlement with any State granting that State greater advantages than those provided by the present Treaty, those same advantages shall be extended to the parties to the present Treaty."

The Japanese government stated, "Although it is true that the Soviet Union gained huge benefit from this, legally speaking, our government does not recognize it as a form of reparation." This is the reason why our country stubbornly refuses to pay Siberian internees for their labor. If it did, that means that the Japanese government admits to the fact that forced labor did take place, it legally constituted reparation to the Soviet Union by labor. That in turn will set other nations' claims for reparation in motion    

Ignoring the fact as long as not legally responsible and looking other way when it comes to the issue of conscience, morality and humanitarianism--where did this shameless and evil attitude come from? I would like to say the following in defense of the honor of my country. It was not too long ago that our country lost its sense of what was wrong and what was right. Even a tiny nation in the Far East, our people had long held the tradition of cherishing morality and modesty. The last year marked the centennial anniversary of the Russo-Japanese war, during which time the principle of Bushido was alive and well and Japan enjoyed a fine refutation of being the most honorable nation in terms of treating POWs. It was the reckless militarism that changed Japan overnight and we still have its residue today.

What is needed is to wake up from the utilitarianism which preaches that everything is fine unless one violates law. Whether or not we have legal responsibility, we should reclaim our morality and listen to our hearts. We should humbly acknowledge our past wrongs, seek forgiveness, and pay heartfelt compensation immediately. We should reclaim our honor and pride of 100 years ago as Japanese people quickly.

The California's Hayden law did not seem to have worked due to an intervention by the State Department. On the other hand, the U.S. mediation worked wonderfully with the German slave/forced labor cases. However, the honorable solution of creating the  "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" foundation to compensate victims and to educate future generation was more a result of defendant Germany's stance to take moral, not legal, responsibility than the efforts of the Clinton administration. Therefore, the problem was not the failure of the Hayden law, but defendant Japanese companies and the Japanese government did not have the same moral sense that Germany had.      

Rabbi Cooper also pointed out the inability of a democratic Japan to properly apologize to any of their WWII victims in Asia for its previous wartime regime's violation of the basic norms of humanity. This is precisely the force that refuses the claims of former POWs in the U.S. and Japan and openly pays a visits to Yasukuni Shrine. They are the residue of the militaristic Japan who have managed to survive the postwar years and who are now ready to finish their unfinished business by rewriting the Constitution.  

It must be clear by now. It is the nationalism thriving in the mainstay of Japan that rejects the forgiveness you and I genuinely want to give and tries to bury the past crimes. They worship war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine and refuse to pay any type of compensation.

Many of us are getting old and powerless with very little time and money. Yet we have citizens who support us. They are so called grass-root activists who wholeheartedly support victims here in Japan and abroad. It is through the tireless efforts of these conscientious people that goodwill and friendship between this shameful nation and its former victims are narrowly maintained.  

Let me conclude my essay. We are now working toward these two goals:

1. Claim against Russia--In the event of signing a Japan-Russia Peace Treaty, acknowledge the wrongs of Siberian Internment again and to prove their true remorse return the four Northern Islands immediately.

2. Demand to Japan--Demand firmly that Russia return the four Northern Islands immediately, so as not to forget the sacrifice made by 600,000 Siberian internees. And compensate victims by paying un-paid wages.

We also have comrades (fellow Siberian internees) in Korea and China who are fighting with us. I would like to have solidarity with our friends in the U.S. who share the same goal, raise our common grievances on our common injustice, and achieve our long overdue justice. As Rabbi Cooper wrote, I would like to have leaders of Japan find a moment of moral clarity, offer sincere apology, and put a clear closure to the wartime past.

It is still not too late. May the new year bring you a very special place in history.  

Mr. Koichi Ikeda is a member of "Committee for Enacting Legislation for Siberian Internees."