For a Japanese person like myself, listening to testimonies of former POWs on how brutally they were treated by the Japanese is never easy. But I know their willingness to talk is based on their desire to share, not showing their bitterness.
The hardest part in my conversation with former POWs is to hear them say, "The Japanese government and the Japanese companies that enslaved us have never apologized."
Therefore, whenever I have a chance to write or speak about the POW issue, I try to emphasize the importance of Japan's acknowledging the history of POW abuse and offering a sincere apology for it. I do so because I believe that former POWs deserve it and because I know they want to see that happen.
Sometimes, conversations with former POWs or their family members give me the opportunity to think about the issue of forgiveness and apology on a much deeper level.
Former POW Mr. Harold Poole
I got a call in my office late one afternoon from my good friend and Harold’s son-in-law, Warner, who as usual got right to the point.
“Harold’s quitting the case,” he said. “He read President Hinckley’s book and he called me and told me he’s quitting. Parky, you need to talk to him.”
I called Harold. He had indeed just finished reading a new book written by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something. In the book, Hinckley writes about forgiveness and not attempting to right every wrong through fights and lawsuits. Salvation comes from within, not without, the church leader counsels. Jesus taught to turn the other cheek and love those who despitefully use you.
As obedient a Latter-Day Saint as you will ever find, Harold took the advice to heart. He had forgiven the Japanese long ago. He decided he did not need to push the point any further by suing them.
In the end, Mr. Parkinson would persuade Mr. Poole that the lawsuit was about justice. Mr. Poole agreed to stay in, but said, "It is for the people who did not come back."
Ever since I read about this episode I wanted to meet Mr. Poole and to know more about him. That occasion finally arrived recently in Salt Lake City. Here is our conversation:
What went through your mind when you almost quit your lawsuit?
I read the article by the leader of our Church where he wrote that forgiveness is not just little here and little there, but to forgive everything. You need to forgive whatever happened to you in order to go on with your life and accomplish what you want to accomplish.
It struck me very strongly when I read that. Of course I had forgiven the Japanese people long ago, so I had to cope with this issue when I joined the lawsuit.
Forgiveness has, as far as I am concerned, already come with me. I don't have any hard feeling towards the Japanese people. I know I am the one that would be harmed if I hold grudges against anybody. I realized that the best thing to do was to have complete forgiveness. We forgive and go on with our lives, live a good life, and don't worry about trying to get even with people.
Then what was it that made you change your mind and want to continue with the lawsuit, even if you had forgiven the Japanese?
Justice. That was the main thing and we are still working on it. You can forgive people, but justice still must be served. In order for that to happen, it looked like my effort to help the case was needed.
You said that you had forgiven the Japanese people long ago, but wouldn't it still mean a lot if the Japanese side offered an apology?
Yes, it would to me and my colleagues. But I can't say, "Hey! I am perfect." I have my faults, too. I know there will be a time when I have to account for some of the things I have done in my life. Forgiveness is the best thing you can do for your own sake. It's an ongoing thing for me. It's not a one time thing.
I do believe that a person is a lot happier and lives a better life if he has forgiveness in his life.
You keep coming back to your forgiveness rather than the Japanese apology.
I consider "forgiveness" a privilege. It's a God-given privilege.
I was very shy when I was young. I had five sisters and no brother. But now I enjoy speaking to 400- 500 students about my POW experience. The last few years have been the highlight of my life. I had some bad things happened to my life. I lost two wives. I married to my first wife for 30 years and to my second wife for 11 years. I feel I have been well blessed nevertheless because I am still here.
I like to help people. That's a part of my makeup. I am very handy with tools. You might call me a handyman. I do a lot of things and like to help people in my neighborhood.
So the first half of my life was a little bad, but I am very happy today. The bible says the end is better than the beginning. I am happy that my ending is much better than the beginning.
It is amazing that you described what happened to you--the Bataan Death March, almost dying of Malaria, being transported on a Hellship, and two years of slave labor in Japan-- "a little bad." Are you proud of Soldier Slaves? It is your story.
I am very proud of this book. I don't know of many people who has a chance to have a book written about him. I am very grateful to the authors, Mr. James Parkinson and Mr. Lee Benson.
It is a sad story, especially the ending. But it is not a bitter book. It still gives hope for humanity and I think it is due to your character. Thank you for sharing your story.
Mr. Poole hardly spoke about apology. But here are some of the facts:
1. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto offered an apology to British POWs of the Japanese in 1998 and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered an apology to Dutch POWs of the Japanese in 2005.
2. No apology directed to American POWs has been offered by a Japanese Prime Minister. The only statement that a high ranking Japanese official ever made on the wartime POW abuse in the American context, although still not mentioning "American POWs," was as follows:
We have never forgotten that Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries during the last war. Many lost their precious lives and many were wounded. The war has left an incurable scar on many people, including former prisoners of war. Facing these facts of history in a spirit of humility, I reaffirm today our feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology expressed in the Prime Minister Murayama's statement of 1995.
This statement was included in the speech that Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka gave on the occasion of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the very treaty that took away POWs' claims against Japan, in 2001.
3. The Japanese government has been inviting 40- 50 former British and Dutch POWs and their family members to Japan each year with the "Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative" project. The aim of this project is to facilitate a sincere and honest appraisal of the past and promote mutual understanding. No such project exists for former American POWs and their family members.
4. A request by representatives of former American POWs for a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister has been ignored by both the Japanese and the U.S. governments.
5. None of the Japanese companies that used Allied POWs, including more than 15,000 American POWs, as slave laborers has acknowledged it, much less apologized for it. Those companies include many well-known international corporations such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel as well as the company owned by the family of the current Foreign Minister Taro Aso.
Lastly, I would like to share the words of the late Captain Duane Heisinger,
US Navy, (Ret.), whose father
died on a Japanese POW transport Hellship.
We exchanged many emails for the three years we were friends. Many of our correspondences were on the issues of forgiveness and apology.
Once he wrote to me,
“Forgiveness and understanding do go together and it is
necessary for both elements to be present. But, for me, when one is not present
the other must proceed alone.”
Duane passed away in May of this year
There must be in us all, an ability, not to forget, but to forgive--even in the absence of an apology--within the context of a meaningful exchange of the historical events. I think there are cultural limitations or hesitancies which apply more within the Japanese culture (even today?) which may make this difficult. I will not let any of this force me to harbor ill feelings. I must go on and meet each person I meet on a "level playing field," not a field influenced by acts outside an individual. So I will not harbor ill will. Disappointment, yes, not ill will. That is what I mean by “Forgiveness and understanding do go together and it is necessary for both elements to be present. But, for me, when one is not present the other must proceed alone.”