WW II Japan Slave Labor: What to Make of Mitsubishi Materials’ Apology?

Seventy years after the end of WWII, Mitsubishi Materials staged a high profile apology to James Murphy, 94 year old survivor and former American POW. The ceremony took place this month at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, appropriately the museum established to remind the world of the European Holocaust.

Apparently the company representative of Mitsubishi sold the former American POW on the depth of his remorse and the sincerity of his regret such that Murphy was pleased to accept on behalf of all the American prisoners that toiled as slaves in wartime Japan. Approximately 12,000 American POWs were shipped to Japan to fill the labor supply shortage and about 10% did not live long enough to be repatriated home.

The well-covered event won accolades from mainly the western media for being the first Japanese company to step forward, acknowledge and apologize for the wrongs committed by Japan during WWII.  Some even called it a “landmark” apology. Many expressed the hope that other Japanese companies will follow suit and perhaps even persuade the Abe government to do the same.

The company spokesman went on to say that Mitsubishi hopes to apologize to POWs of other nationalities and to negotiate with various Chinese groups with an agreement that includes cash settlement. Altogether, about 39,000 Chinese were taken to Japan for slave labor. Almost 20% died in various labor camps.

Of these, 3765 Chinese prisoners were known to work in the mines belonging to Mitsubishi’s predecessor entity. At least 722 did not survive the war. As reported in Japan Times and other sources, the company was to offer RMB 100,000 (around $16,000) to each survivor or to their heirs since not too many are likely to be around with the passage of 70 years.

It has taken 70 years because Japanese government and companies have been ducking behind the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 and the normalization agreement between China and Japan entered in 1972.

Japan has always claimed that the 1951 peace treaty got them off the hook from future obligation to pay any indemnity. Indeed, when American POWs filed suit for compensation, the US courts struck them down because of the terms of the peace treaty stipulated forfeiting American citizens’ right to seek damages. But the line of reasoning does not apply to Chinese prisoners, since neither governments of China, based in Beijing or based in Taipei, were invited to attend this conference nor did either one ratify the treaty.

After the war, the allied countries investigated and assessed the war damage inflicted by Japan; the commission came up with a reparation sum of $54 billion to be paid by Japan. China as the nation that fought Japan the longest and suffered the greatest devastation sought the largest share but their claims were basically ignored. Just the sum of the claims by the rapacious western powers, namely UK, the US, the USSR, France and Australia together, exceeded 100%. Ironically, the allies fought together but could not agree on how the spoils of war should be divided. The findings and conclusions were basically set aside and forgotten.

By the time of the San Francisco conference, Japan had already become a potential US ally in the developing Cold War and the matter of indemnity was perfunctorily dealt with. Asian countries that attended the conference got some reparation in the order of a few hundred millions dollars. China and Taiwan in absentia were given official title to their possession of the Japanese assets left by the departed Japanese. Even the then prime minister Yoshida of Japan admitted that Japan got off easy.

In contrast, when China lost a two-month war to Japan in 1894, Japan grabbed Taiwan and other islands and demanded harsh indemnity as stipulated in the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed in 1895. In total, China paid the equivalent of ten thousand tons of silver over a three-year period. With one brief military adventure, Japan enriched their government coffers by more than four times their then annual revenue. No wonder when Japan invaded China in 1937, their militarist leaders expected to own the country in a matter of months.

Concurrent with Japan signing the SFPT, Japan also entered into a security treaty with the U.S. The five-article treaty contained only a few hundred words and basically gave the US the right to station military forces on Japan in exchange for protecting the security of Japan against “irresponsible militarism” existing in the world. The treaty gave both signatories plenty of latitude for interpretation and subsequent re-interpretation.

Just as the coupled treaties in 1951 protected Japan from the personal grievances of Americans that suffered from Japan’s brutality, the normalization between China and Japan in 1972 gave Japan cover to reject claims from China. Conveniently, the 1972 joint communiqué is subjected to “one document, two interpretations.” China’s official interpretation is that the government waived claims to WWII reparation from Japan but nothing about the people’s right to file claims against Japan.

Chinese complaints representing persons and groups began to be filed in Japan in earnest in the ‘90s. In 2007 the supreme court of Japan made a final ruling that dismissed all the suits on the grounds that the joint communiqué rendered the suits moot. However, the court found atrocities described by the litigants sufficiently appalling that they recommended to the Japanese companies being sued to settle the disputes amicably and somehow make the complaints whole. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, nothing much has happened.

Beginning in 2008, some of the attorneys representing the Chinese victims began to file their complaints against Japanese companies in the courts in China. In February 2014, the courts in China notified the principals of the dispute that they agreed to hear the case. Suddenly, companies such as Mitsubishi took notice and Mitsubishi Materials in particular began to offer to settle.

The calculation of risks and rewards for stalling and stiffing the Chinese victims has changed. China has become or about to become the largest economy in the world and the Japanese companies have too much at stake in this market to risk losing in a Chinese court. In addition, good will from the people of China now has value.

When Mitsubishi Materials began to publicize their willingness to settle the Chinese claims against the company, the reactions inside China were mixed ranging from elation to condemnation. Some praised the apparent intention to pay a significant sum to the victims and saw this as a breakthrough in a long stalemate.

Others challenge the sincerity behind the offer pointing out while the company has been quick to inform the media of their intentions; the company has yet to meet with the groups filing the grievances and begin negotiations. They wonder if Mitsubishi will actually pay up. Still other groups expressed dissatisfaction in the wording of Mitsubishi’s apology.

When the people in China began to understand the legal remedies available from the western style of the rule of law, thousands joined various groups to file their complaints. But they did not realize that the wheels of justice grind at snail’s pace. By now the numbers that have survived the ravages of time have dwindled to a handful.

Like a piece of meat past the sell-by date lying in a dumpster, all kinds of flies are hovering around Mitsubishi’s offer to pay cash to the victims. A number of lawyers in China of uncertain pedigree have emerged to allege that they represent certain victims and are looking to manage a piece of the pie. It remains to be seen if that piece of the pie is real or illusory.

Heretofore Japan has been most skillful in bending historical facts to their advantage. The Peace Museum of Hiroshima serves to remind the world that the people of Japan have been the only victims of the atomic bomb but no explanation can be found to describe the events that led to the dropping of the bomb.

Ironically, Japan has applied for World Heritage designation on some of the mines as symbol of Japan’s emergence from feudal state into a modern one, including some belonging to Mitsubishi. Because of vigorous protest from S. Korea, Japan has grudgingly agreed to post wording at those sites indicating that slave labor from Korea were used in Japan’s march toward modernity. It’s doubtful that there will be signs onsite to inform visitors that WWII prisoners also toiled in some of these mines under inhumane conditions.

Japan’s inability to face history fully and make a clean breast of all the atrocities they have committed must be part of their genetic make up. They obviously need help. The latest effort to remind Japan of its past is a new webpage called 10,000 cries for justice, www.10000cfj.org.  This bilingual website is a repository of thousands of letters written by the Chinese in the ‘90s that provided eyewitness accounts of atrocities by the Japanese troops during the war, and coincidentally posted just days after the Mitsubishi deal came to public attention.

This is a powerful documentation of heinous acts committed by Japan including bayoneting infants, raping and then disemboweling women, decapitations, live vivisection experiments on human subjects, dropping of chemical and biological bombs on Chinese villages and many other acts against humanity.

The Abe government wants to forget all that. In fact he wants to rewrite Article 9 of Japan’s constitution so that Japan can become a full-fledged military power again — perhaps becoming a new member of “irresponsible militarism”? China won’t forget. Korea won’t forget. The Philippines and other parts of Asia won’t forget. Can the US ignore history?

President Obama should remind Abe that the bilateral security agreement obligates the US to protect Japan from irresponsible militarism not for Japan to repeat history and become one.

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, the Pacific Council for International Policy and a director of New America Media.


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