POW compensation bill: Significance for Japan

Kinue Tokudome

A bill to require the payment of compensation (in the amount of $20,000) to members of the Armed Forces and civilian employees of the United States who were forced to perform slave labor by the Imperial Government of Japan or by corporations of Japan during World War II, or the surviving spouses of such members, was introduced in the Senate (S. 3107). An identical bill was introduced in the House. (H.R. 6497).  (language of the bill)

Certainly, this monetary compensation can only be a symbolic gesture to recognize, however belatedly, the heroic contribution of these men. Their death rate during the captivity attests to the unspeakable brutality they had to endure. Of the approximately 27,000 American POWs of the Japanese nearly 11,000 (40%) perished. 

In addition, I believe that this bill, if passed, will send a powerful message to Japan-- a message that says, "The US government and American people have not forgotten these heroes, and yes, we are willing to address their issue."

Unfortunately, such was not the message that the United States sent to Japan in recent years. When ex-POWs filed lawsuits against Japanese companies like Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Nippon Steel that enslaved POWs during WWII,  the US government sided with the defendant companies. When the US Congress tried to pass legislations to help ex-POWs, American lobbyists were willing to be retained by the Japanese government, receiving millions of dollars to obstruct every effort by Congress to assist ex-POWs' fight for justice. (See the record of two lobbying firms retained by the Japanese government from "FARA semi-annual reports to Congress" at the Justice Department's website)

One can try to understand that the US government had no choice but to side with the Japanese companies because of the Peace Treaty signed by the two countries that waived the claims of ex-POWs, although some legal scholars argue that individual claims could not be waived by a treaty. Yet it is hard to understand the total absence of support from the US government when, after the dismissal of their cases, ex-POWs tried to start a dialogue with the Japanese government and the Japanese business community so that an honorable and mutually agreeable closure could be brought to the tragic history of American POWs of the Japanese.

Without any sign from the US government that it wanted Japan to work toward the resolution of the POW issue, the Japanese side had no incentive to do so. The Japanese government has been inviting ex-POWs and their families from England, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand to Japan to promote friendship and reconciliation. It has spent millions of dollars on this invitation program and additional educational projects on wartime history in the last ten years. Hundreds of ex-POWs and their families have been invited to Japan under this program. American ex-POWs and their families were totally excluded. 
(More details in Japanese at "Ten-year report on Peace and Friendship Initiative")

When I asked the the Japanese Foreign Ministry why Americans were excluded, they replied that "the circumstance surrounding POWs are different with each country." When Dr. Lester Tenney, National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, asked the same question when he visited Japan recently, he could not get a satisfactory answer as to what different circumstances surrounded American POWs. 

We can only speculate whether the difference the Japanese government spoke of is the fact that the United States is the only former Allied country that has not compensated its ex-POWs of the Japanese. As the bill currently in the Senate and House states in its findings, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Norway, and Isle of Man all awarded compensation to their surviving POWs of the Japanese.

Did the unwillingness of the US government to express its gratitude to and respect for their own ex-POWs of the Japanese send a message that the Japanese government need not to care about them either?    

It may or may not be the reason for the exclusion, but the absence of support from their own government did not help American ex-POWs and their families heal their old wounds.

One daughter's trip to Japan

Mary-Anne Stickney recently visited the site of Fukuoka POW camp #1 in Japan for the first time. Her father, Peter Hansen (his story here), was an American civilian worker captured by the Japanese military on Wake Island in December of 1941. He was brought to Japan and made to work for dam construction in Sasebo. He almost survived the war but died on March 21, 1945. A Japanese soldier who was responsible for his death was tried and found guilty of war crimes against sick and weakened POWs including withholding medications, beating them, and other heinous acts.

When Mary-Anne visited the site of the POW camp in Fukuoka where her father died, there was nothing to remind people that a POW camp once stood there and that 147 POWs died there. It was just a small empty lot in a wooded area.

Mary-Anne made a cross with twigs she picked up and placed a little flower she had brought with her in front of it. No memorial or a plaque... Only a little twig cross she herself made... That was how she paid tribute to her father exactly 63 years to the date of his death in Japan.

Mary-Anne Stickney at the site of the former POW camp where her father died
(photo taken by Wes Injerd who guided Mary-Anne's visit to Kyushu, Japan)

She also went to the hill overlooking the port of Moji where tens of thousands of Allied POWs arrived after being transported on Hellships. Again, nothing to remind of the horrific voyages that POWs endured.

The port of Moji today where tens of thousands of POWs arrived during WWII
 to become slave laborers  (photo by Wes Injerd)

Mary-Anne shared with me her reflection on her visit to the place where her father lived and died as a POW.

I am glad I went.  No it wasn't all sad.  I was in awe that I was there in Japan where my dad was. To be walking on the same ground where he walked.  Just mostly quietly absorbing the air and the feeling his presence and a sense of wonder how anyone could have survived.

I certainly shed tears at the dam as I thought of the icy winds with few clothes, the empty stomachs, extreme hours of hard labor and the beatings.  How did they endure this day after day after day?  Then of course under the pines, knowing he died on that day 63 years before.  He held on until he could no longer.

But we can rejoice that my dad is in heaven walking with Jesus and singing praises with the angels!  That's the real victory, the triumph.

The other sense of my trip was to be with the Japanese people. I have never held any animosity against the people. -- The Japanese government and military, however, is another story. I saw more sameness than difference between our cultures. 
An insightful lesson.

Mary-Anne touches  the Soto Dam built by slave labor by POWs including her father.        (Photo by Wes Injerd)

Mary-Anne's trip to Japan is a painful reminder that the United States and Japan need to start working together to properly remember and honor those POWs who had to endure the tragic chapter in our shared history. It is unworthy of our close relationship that the history of American POWs is virtually unknown in Japan today. It is unworthy of our friendship that the United States allows that situation to continue. 

Dr. Lester Tenney has already proposed an honorable resolution--creating a foundation by the Japanese government and the Japanese companies that enslaved POWs during WWII.  Such a foundation can invite American ex-POWs and their families to Japan, just as the Japanese government has been inviting ex-POWs and families of other former Allied countries.  A joint research on the POW history can be started so that Japanese people will learn about what took place at nearly 130 POW camps scattered throughout Japan during WWII.  People from both countries may eventually build a memorial on the hill of Moji someday. 

Such an effort could go a long way to heal old wounds and to bring people of the United States and Japan closer.

But for that to happen, the US government and American people must show their support for ex-POWs. The passage of S. 3107 and H.R. 6497 can be the first step. The United States must send the right message to Japan that American people care about their WWII veterans who suffered grave injustice at the hands of the Japanese and that they are willing to do their part to redress it. Then it will be Japan's turn to do the right thing.

                                                                                        (posted on Ausgut15, 2008)

Post Script

POW compensation bill did  not pass

Sponsors of the POW compensation bill (S. 3107), Senators Jeff Bingaman and Orrin Hatch, tried to make their bill an amendment to the Senate Defense Authorization Bill.  On September 17, after a partisan showdown the Senate did not approve a package of roughly 100 amendments. The POW compensation amendment was one of them.  

Before the vote, ADBC National Commander Lester Tenney and National Treasurer Edward Jackfert traveled to Washington DC to seek support for this bill.  Although the bill did not pass because of procedural difficulty this time, many prominent members of Congress expressed their support. Some of them said that they would be willing to work on this issue in the next session. 

  With House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner

Senator Jeff Bingaman explains his POW compensation bill
photo by Olive Rosen  OLIVE ROSEN


* Please read  Washington Post article on Dr Tenney