A few days ago the Associated Press announced that Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation apologized to American POWs used as forced labor during World War II. In a ceremony held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles on July 19, 2015, Mitsubishi senior executive Hikaru Kumura apologized to California veteran James Murphy, 94, the only living survivor able to make the trip, and by extension to all ex-POWs subjected to forced labor by the company during the war. The public apology marks the first time any Japanese company has admitted its wartime role in using Allied captives for what was essentially slave labor.
Linda Goetz Holmes, author of Unjust Enrichment: How Japan’s Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWS (Stackpole Books, 2001), names some fifty-two Japanese companies that used American and Allied POWs for labor in their mines, shipyards, and factories to maintain full production for the war effort. In a cooperative effort of government, military, and business, prison camps funneled tens of thousands of malnourished prisoners into industrial complexes where they labored under horrendous conditions. While some were promised pay, few received any compensation for arduous and dangerous work. Given the appalling conditions of the POW camps themselves and lack of regulation or safety measures at work, many prisoners died, only to be replaced by another draft.
Holmes focuses on five of the biggest users of American POW labor during the war: Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Nippon Steel, Kawasaki, and Showa Denko – all of which, she argues, are flourishing in the modern economy and some of which do considerable business in the United States. Mitsubishi, which issued the corporate apology, operated mines, shipyards, steel mills, and many factories during the war. Several of the wartime POW camps appear to have been created specifically to service Mitsubishi’s labor needs. It is a daunting challenge to connect the dots among Japan’s government and private sector industrial operations and POW camp labor, and I have found some flaws in Holmes’s research, but Mitsubishi’s role is perhaps the clearest. The public apology confirms the company’s wartime exploitation of American POWs.
My late father, Ted Olson, labored nearly three full years as a POW in the Yawata Steel Works. Holmes asserts that that Yawata was part of Nippon Iron and Steel at the time, though other sources state that it was a giant trust incorporated by the government in 1934 and Nippon Steel was created in 1970 as a merger of Yawata and Fuji Iron and Steel Companies. Again, it is difficult to identify all the companies and level of government control and funding during the war, or how they all descend to modern companies. What is clear is that Japanese industry profited greatly from the exploitation of wartime prisoners and those profits launched some spectacular successes in the postwar era.
My father was in the earliest draft of prisoners moved from Woosung (Shanghai War Prisoners’ Camp, where over a thousand of the Wake captives were interned in January 1942) to Japan for industrial labor. In late September 1942, Ted was among seventy Wake Islanders shipped to Moji Bay on the north side of the island of Kyushu. Initially housed in an old hospital in Yahata, the prisoners were immediately put to work at the Yawata steel complex. A year later the growing camp was moved thirty miles north and designated Fukuoka 3-B, but the bulk of the prisoners continued to slave in the steel mills, riding a train to and from Yawata every day. My father’s trade on Wake was structural steel work and, according to a fellow prisoner, Ted spent day after day in a crouching position, driving rivets in steel plates. It is not surprising that he never drove another rivet after the war. Sadly, he also never returned to college where he had been pursuing a degree in architectural engineering. I often wonder how different his life might have been if not for that scarring POW experience.
None of the Wake Islanders got by easy during the war, but hundreds spent more time in the mines or industrial slave labor than others. By the last year of the war all of the Wake prisoners had been moved into the Japanese home islands and dispersed throughout many camps. Camp information and liberation lists compiled at the Center for Research: Allied POWs under the Japanese reveal some of the extent of labor exploitation during the war.
The 1951 peace treaty with Japan barred any American postwar claims against the Japanese government or corporations in the interest of creating a stable, democratic Japan. In his article “A Just Peace?” historian John Price writes that as recently as 1999 a group of ex-POWs tested the treaty, claiming that Japanese corporations with subsidiaries in the U. S. were the legal successors of their wartime exploiters. The claim was dismissed in a court decision that stated that the 1951 treaty had “exchanged full compensation of plaintiffs for a future peace. History has vindicated the wisdom of that bargain. And while full compensation for plaintiff’s hardships, in the purely economic sense, has been denied these former prisoners and countless other survivors of the war, the immeasurable bounty of life for themselves and their posterity in a free society and in a more peaceful world services the debt” (United States District Court, Northern District of California, Case No. MDL 1347, “World War II Era Japanese Forced Labor Litigation,” p. 17).
On the occasion of the first and only corporate apology last week, Mitsubishi’s Mr. Kimura stated: “Today we apologize remorsefully for the tragic events in our past.” Survivor James Murphy responded: “Being one of the few surviving workers of that time, I find it to be my duty and responsibility to accept Mr. Kimura’s apology.” Too little and too late, but better than none and never.