The Future:  Forgiveness and Responsibility
Dr. Lester Tenney

Asahi Shimbun, November 7, 2001 

My deep respect goes to the Japanese media for reporting developments in the U.S. courts, Congress and the American media regarding POW lawsuits brought by former American POWs who were enslaved by Japanese companies during World War II. I was particularly heartened by the September 28th “Point of View” article by a former Lower House member from the Democratic Party of Japan, Yukihisa Fujita, where he argued that “reconciliation starts from settling the past and establishing justice.”

I speak as a former Prisoner of War, captured on Bataan and then shipped to Japan to work for Mitsui-Miike coal mine. It was indeed a life of a “slave.” My life philosophy since that time has developed into one of understanding and of compassion. I strongly believe that forgiveness and responsibility go hand in hand. One without the other is meaningless.

With this in mind, I welcomed the invitation to lecture about my war experiences to Japanese students. A Japanese Professor arranged for me to speak at eleven Universities, two high schools, and one grade school. I was invited to explain what happened on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, and the experience of my forced labor while a POW in Japan. Thousands of young people warmly greeted me, saying, “Welcome to Japan. We are sorry for what you had to experience.” I was moved beyond words to know that I am now welcome in the same land in which I was enslaved 60 years ago.

Through my lectures and meetings, I shared with these young people the story behind my struggle to make the private Japanese company that enslaved me to take responsibility for its actions during the War. I have never blamed the Japanese people or their country. The forced labor and horrific treatment that I endured during the War was done by a company, and that company and the others that enslaved POWs must shoulder their moral burdens. These companies made the American POWs their slaves,  forced us to work in their coal mines shoveling coal 12 hours a day, every day. With little rest, no medical care, very little food, and no protection from frequent and brutal beatings by company employees, I had my honor and dignity taken from me. I am angry with the company that did this to me, not with the people of Japan who I have come to love and respect. The students, some of whom were having tears in their eyes, understood this and accepted me for who and what I am. I told them, “
You are the hope, and the future of Japan and the world is on your shoulder.”

I filed a lawsuit against Mitsui two years ago. Lawyers for Mitsui and the Japanese government say, "The Peace Treaty with Japan solved all issues."  The U.S. State Department has sided with the Japanese. But many members of the U.S. Congress support POWs and are trying to pass a bill that will enable our cases to proceed in the court.

Moreover, a recent California court ruling has established the fact that Courts in the United States, not the State Department, will determine the true meaning of the Treaty. It finds that factual issues exist as to the application of the 1951 Peace Treaty with Japan.

Last June, the Asahi Shimbun made a proposal that the Japanese government and companies should establish a foundation to compensate all the victims of wartime forced labor. If the Japanese government and companies take this important proposal seriously, we may be able to see "forgiveness" and "responsibility" finally go hand in hand.

It is my hope that the Japanese companies that enslaved so many Americans will realize that now is the time to end this façade of innocence and face up to their responsibility. It is time for these companies to wake up from the long denial and service their debt to society.

The author is a Professor Emeritus from Arizona State University and a former POW of the Japanese.