Japanese Companies Should Apologize to Former POWs
for Their WWII Forced Labor and Abuse

(Originally published in Japanese in Mainichi Shimbun on May 10, 2010)

Lester Tenney  


On April 9, 1942, I was one of approximately 12,000 American soldiers who were surrendered to the Japanese military on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippine Islands.  After the surrender, starving and sick POWs were forced to march 65 miles under the scorching sun without food, water, medical treatment, or rest. This march became known as one of World War II’s most infamous war crimes.

For those who survived the “Bataan Death March,” it was the beginning of over three years in an unimaginable hell that included our being sold into slavery by the Japanese military to over 60 Japanese companies. At companies like Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Nippon Sharyo, and Hitachi, we labored in brutal conditions to sustain Japan’s war production of everything from coal to flour, from steel to train wheels.

The suffering we endured from the employees of these companies was comparable to, and sometimes worse than, that inflicted upon us by the Japanese military. As a result, more than a thousand American POWs (3,500 Allied POWs) died in Japan. Those who survived found themselves with permanent physical and mental damage.

In May 2009, Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, apologized for his government for the atrocities committed by the Japanese on American POWs during WWII.  This apology made me feel that our Japanese allies understood our need for justice and for closure of this wicked chapter in US-Japan relations.

But I ask, “Are we not also entitled to an apology from those companies who used and abused American POWs?”  These companies are members of Nippon Keidanren, Japan’s premier business organization. They accept Keidanren’s “Charter of Corporate Behavior” which states, “Members are expected to respect human rights.”

With this in mind, I wrote to Chairman Fujio Mitarai in 2009 asking that Keidanren join the government of Japan in bringing honorable closure to the WWII POW forced labor by apologizing for inhumane forced labor. I have yet to receive a response.

I now ask the Chairman-elect, Mr. Hiromasa Yonekura, to offer an apology. Many Japanese companies, including his Sumitomo Chemical, deprived POWs of adequate food, clothing, and medical care and further allowed their employees to brutalize the POWs in their care. They withheld Red Cross care packages.

Keidanren’s members no longer have any legal responsibility to the American POWs, but there is a moral responsibility to acknowledge the past wrongs. We ask Keidanren to openly accept that responsibility and show their sincerity to former POWs.  A genuine apology that shows understanding of our sacrifices is long overdue. We have waited 65 years for Japan’s business community to do the honorable thing.

*Dr. Lester Tenney is a past National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.

Kinue Tokudome

It has been ten years since I began to befriend former American POWs of the Japanese.  The brutal treatment they endured, where the mortality rate of the 27,000 captured reached 40%, is hardly known in Japan. Not a single memorial has been built by the Japanese government for the POWs who perished in Japan, and the Japanese companies that enslaved POWs have never acknowledged that fact.

Dr. Tenney began his mission of holding Japan accountable immediately after the war, and in recent years has tried to resolve the issue through lawsuits and appeals to the US Congress. During this period, he saw German companies like Siemens that also used forced labor during WWII, together with their government, pay compensation to the victims and support reconciliation and educational projects although they were not legally responsible.

Last year, the Japanese government went beyond the long-held position – “San Francisco Peace Treaty resolved the issue” – in offering an apology based on moral grounds.  It is hoped that companies will take Dr. Tenney’s appeal as the last opportunity to bring honorable closure to the history of POW forced labor.

Although Japan and the Allied nations waived reparation claims against each other in the peace treaty, efforts to this day by Tokyo firebombing victims to obtain compensation from the Japanese government show that the pain of those who suffered during WWII has not gone away.  Mr. Tenney and his fellow former POWs in the US are no different.

How many Japanese people who want to see President Obama visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to understand the suffering of Atomic Bomb victims know themselves about the suffering of American POWs?  I believe that Keidanren’s sincere response will not only help former POWs have closure but also contribute to expanding the perspectives of both Japanese and American people to each other’s suffering.

*Kinue Tokudome is Founder and Executive Director of US-Japan Dialogue on POWs.