American POWs and Japanese slave labor

By: Robert Lee - Contributing columnist

Japan would like to forget a lot about World War II. But there are certain things that the world should not allow them to forget. One such part is the forced labor of our troops who had become prisoners of war. There would be thousands of our men and women who would be forced to work until they died from starvation and the brutality of their captors.

Some of the largest manufactures of Japan worked hand in hand with the Japanese government. Our men were captured on the battlefield, this is a fact. They should have been treated as POWs and nothing more. This would not be the case. They were forced to work in Japanese factories, shipyards and mines. Just about all of the manufacturers used our troops for labor. Some of the top ones were Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi International Corporation, Mitsui and Company, Nippon Steel and Showa Denko. There were many other companies that used prisoners of war. All of these POWs, at one time or the other, were subject to mistreatment: being beaten, denied medical treatment, and starved. Those who did survive still suffer mental and physical problems, with most having recurring nightmares.

For years, the Japanese government denied that our troops were treated in this manner, even though there were thousands upon thousands of our men whotestified to these facts. The scars — both mental and physical — will never leave these men. I must say that our government did not do enough to help these men. After doing a bit of research, I found declassified documents that have made it a bit easier to corroborate the allegations of torture and starvations that took place in these factories. The part that upsets me the most is now knowing that our own government and American intelligence officials made our men sign documents that forbade them to talk about how the Japanese had treated them.

Why? What was our government trying to hide? Our government knew at that time if the truth had come out, that the Japanese civilians of this country would have been made into targets and that there would have been reprisals. This would have been the same thing that the German civilians had endured after the war. Again, right or wrong? At that time, I know how the American people would have reacted: there would have been wholesale slaughter of the Japanese-Americans.

There is, as we all know, a great difference between requiring prisoners to work under humane conditions, which we can call forced labor, as opposed to slave labor, where beatings and starvation are an everyday occurrence. We see it, we know it but the Japanese government has not been able to draw this distinction then or now. For these prisoners of war, this has been a degradation of a lifetime with no justice.

From the end of the war until today there have been hundreds of lawsuits filed by former prisoners against the Japanese government about prisoner abuse. Japanese laws and the San Francisco Peace Treaty — under which Japan agreed to pay some reparations to war victims — has made it almost impossible to win a case in which the Japanese government was a defendant. I fail to understand why these cases cannot be won, as do most of the prisoners of war. The evidence is there for all to see.

The Japanese government, along with the Japanese politicians of that time period, carry the weight of blame for WWII with America. Japan provoked the war with America, not the other way around. But of course, there were Japanese politicians who did not see it that way. They saw America as the problem for even being in Asia and the surrounding area. Any way that you look at it, it still goes back to the Japanese government. It was Japan’s government that contracted with all types of Japanese industries to produce the weapons of war. Those contracts were no different from those that took place here in America. General Motors, IBM, Singer, International Harvester were just a few of the larger companies that I can name. I must make this one point: if the war had gone the other way and America had lost, then the leadership of our American companies would have been looked upon by the Japanese government as war criminals.

The Japanese government would not have wanted our companies to pay war reparations. Instead, they would have taken those companies and the leadership would have been executed. The reason I say this is because of the way that the Japanese government and their military treated our troops when they were captured on the battlefield. The only way that the prisoners will ever see a penny is to go after the companies themselves. It is, and has been, a disappointment to our WWII veterans because of the way that our own government has handled this matter. There have also been lawsuits filed by Chinese citizens that suffered even harsher treatment during Japan’s occupation of China. These lawsuits were filed in Japan against Japanese corporations and not the government. Those who have been following these suits still say that there chances are slim to none that they will win under the Japanese legal system.

Lawyers for these Japanese corporations have stated that they take the charges seriously but can not comment on them. I will comment on one other point that is very upsetting to me and that is the fact that most of these lawyers for the Japanese government are American. The only thing that they will say is that there have been similar suits in which most, if not all, of the charges were dismissed. They have also stated that the charges raise several substantial and complex international and constitutional issues. One question? Whose constitutional issues? If it’s Japan’s, who cares. They lost the war. Let them pay our men what is owed.

The Japanese corporations made money off of the labor of our imprisoned troops. The government also saved money and made money off of the blood, sweat and countless tears of these men.

I have my own issues to raise. These veterans are not getting any younger. Our veterans of WWII are dying at the rate of 1,500 per day. I know of that 1,500, not all of them were imprisoned. Still, there are quite a few who were. I must also ask the question: What does it say about our own government when we know that these men were pushed to the sidelines after the war? Sure, I know that they have received benefits because they are veterans and were held as prisoners of war but it is not enough?

Will there ever be justice for these men and their families? I can only question our government as to why not. Was it, or is it, the fact that Japan became a large trading partner with America? These dollars that came to America, were they more important than justice for our veterans? One can only hope that I am wrong in the way that I feel. Do I honestly feel that our government has done the right thing by our WWII veterans in this case? I firmly do not believe that they have. Even though there were a lot of Japanese soldiers, officers and non-commissioned officers who paid a heavy price. — that being that they were executed for their war crimes — it has not been enough.

It is time for the Japanese government to open up its eyes and see the facts of what they did during the war to our men. It is time for our own nation to also see what our government has not done for these men.

These men are truly men of honor who should be honored to the highest degree that this nation and its people can bestow upon them all. Let these men not be forgotten. Honor them at all cost.

Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and U.S. Marine veteran who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo. His column appears here each Saturday.

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Robert Lee

Contributing columnist