Forgiveness and Responsibility
Dr. Lester Tenney
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
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.
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.