Editorial: Mitsubishi comes clean on WWII slave labour

Japan’s Mitsubishi Materials Corp. is showing corporate courage by formally apologizing for using American prisoners of war as forced labour at its mines and industrial complexes during World War II — the first Japanese company to have issued an apology for such misdeeds.

A company delegation led by Hikaru Kimura, a senior Mitsubishi exec, made the gesture at a ceremony held July 19 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

The Associated Press reported that Kimura said through a translator that his company offers a “most remorseful apology” to the about 900 American POWs who suffered “harsh, severe hardships” while forced to work in Mitsubishi mines and industrial plants during the war. In an earlier private ceremony, the Mitsubishi delegation offered deep bows of contrition, and another Mitsubishi board member said the company also needed to apologize for being so slow with its apology.

In attendance was former POW, 94-year-old James Murphy of Santa Maria, California, as well as other POWs subjected to such abuses and their family members, including former POW Lester Tenney, 94, who was forced to work at a coal mine run by Mitsui Mining Co. near Omatu, Japan.

“This is a glorious day — for 70 years, we wanted this,” Murphy told the AP, stressing the apology “admits to wrongdoing, makes a sincere statement showing deep remorse,” and assures the wrongs will never be repeated.

Murphy, who served as a radio operator for the U.S. Army Air Corps, had been shipped to Japan as a POW two and half years after his capture in the Philippines and his survival of the notorious Bataan Death March that killed thousands of captured American and Filipino soldiers. He spent a year at a copper mine near Hanawa with about 500 other POWs, an experience he described as “a complete horror” and “slavery in every way: no food, no medicine, no clothing, no sanitation.”

Murphy had been involved in an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit launched against the Japanese government seeking compensation for U.S. POWs who were slave labourers during WWII.

This latest apology includes no financial compensation for the former POWs and their families, though Mitsubishi is making a donation to a museum in West Virginia that commemorates U.S. victims and survivors of the Bataan Death March.

In a statement released after the apology ceremony, Murphy said if other companies followed suit, it would help provide closure for surviving POWs and build a better relationship between Japan and the U.S., who are already close allies. “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.”

Japan’s government had formally apologized for mistreating American WWII POWs in 2009 and again in 2010. The AP notes some 12,000 American prisoners were shipped to Japan and forced to work at more than 50 sites to support Imperial Japan’s war effort, and about 10% died, according to the U.S.-Japan dialogue on POWs, which has spearheaded the effort to get companies to apologize.

During WWII, the Mitsubishi conglomerate was linked to six POW camps in Japan that held 2,041 prisoners, of which half were American, according to non-profit research centre Asia Policy Point. At the war’s end, Mitsubishi Materials Corp.’s predecessor Mitsubishi Mining Co. was running four sites that held 876 American POWs.

Mitsubishi has also shown a new willingness to offer apologies for similar acts against British, Australian and Canadian POWs during WWII if more evidence is brought forward.

The Japanese government recently won “UNESCO World Heritage” status for 23 historical Japanese industrial sites, and in its application for such a designation, acknowledged that during WWII tens of thousands of South Koreans, Chinese and POWs had been forced to fill labour shortages at mines, factories and other industrial sites in Japan.


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