Friday, November 26, 2010

Never too late

Photo borrowed from
 very gifted Australian photographer  
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, the Kan Cabinet’s only member of the arch conservative Nippon Kaigi, on November 23 made an unusual side-trip* while he was in Canberra to ensure his country’s access to Australia’s resources.

He visited the Australia War Museum and Memorial to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Solider and to stand silently before the statue of Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop. Dr Dunlop (1907-93) was the best known of a number of doctors who ministered to Australian prisoners held by Japan. A doctor on the infamous Thai-Burma Death Railroad where nearly 3,000 Australians died, he is immortalized in a large bronze statue in the War Memorial grounds (as pictured above).

In the midst of critical trade and security talks, Maehara felt it necessary to present a gesture of contrition for Japan's mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war. I believe that this is the first time a Japanese Foreign Minister has done so.

A total of 22,376 Australians became prisoners of Japan, most at the fall of Singapore in 1942. Of them 8,031 (36 percent) died in captivity through starvation, overwork, brutality and mistreatment. From the Changi Prison to the Thai-Burma Death Railway the Australians died. Most infamous were the Sandakan death marches where only six Australians of 2,400 Allied POWs survived and the Baka Island machine-gunning in which 21 Australian nurses were shot in the back, leaving Sister Vivian Bullwinkel the sole survivor.

At a press conference in Canberra with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, Maehara said:
There were some 22,000 people who were prisoners of war during the Second World War. I wanted to take the opportunity to express or to demonstrate my feeling of apology towards those people by visiting the statue of Dr Dunlop. In particular, next year, a number of former POWs will be visiting Japan, and I look forward to giving them the warmest welcome that we possibly can.
Yes, the apology was merely a rewording of the 1995 Murayama Statement. Yet, it was the most liberal paraphrase yet of Japan’s solitary official apology. And yes, Australian POWs were included in the 1995 Japanese government-funded series of Peace, Friendship, and Exchange Initiatives for POWs from WWII Allied nations (with the United States as the sole exception).

At the same time, there were a number of significant firsts. The Japanese program for Australian POWs, now ended, were never preceded by an apology or sponsored directly by the Japanese government. Visiting POWs never met with high-level Japanese government officials, as Maehara now said they would. Most significant, after years of Japanese statements that it could not apologize to specific groups, the Australian POWs were specifically mentioned in Maehara’s apology.

All these extraordinary developments mirror what the American POWs received in September during their first ever invitation program to Japan. Six former POWs traveled to Japan courtesy of Japan’s Foreign Ministry. They were received with a deep bow and apology from then-Foreign Minister Okada.

But as the head of the American delegation told Okada, and anyone who would listen, the apology most sought is from the Japanese private companies that purchased and worked them to death. Over 60 Japanese corporations used POWs throughout the Empire. A number, such as Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, also profited from transporting them to POW camps in Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan. All the companies still exist in some form. Although the corporate names have sometimes changed, their antecedents are included in the 100-years or more of their company histories. Contemporary companies such as Ube Industries, Toshiba, Mitsui, Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, and Nippon Sharyo were all kept operating by POW labor during the war.

Curiously, it appears that Japan’s Foreign Ministry remains unwilling to allow Japan’s corporations to go the requested next step. In 2009, one Australian POW, Joe Combs, traveled to Japan to ask then-Prime Minister Aso for an apology for being brutalized and forced to work in one of the Aso family coal mines. Aso Mining used 300 allied POWs and thousands of Koreans as slave labor in the Kyushu mines. He never received the apology, but said, "With an apology the pain will go."

POWs and the U.S. State Department have repeatedly requested that the companies publicly apologize for their complicity in the enslavement and mistreatment of POWs. Japanese diplomats respond that they cannot tell their country’s companies what to do. However, as a Showa Denko representative told an American reporter after a visit by an American POW in September, his company was advised by the Foreign Ministry not to apologize.

There are many things that Japan now desperately wants. From the Australians they need security cooperation and access to its mineral riches and rare earths. From the U.S., the Japanese want the U.S. nuclear umbrella and access to the new multi-billion dollar high-speed rail contracts. But in both Australia and America, there lingers the bitter memory of the mistreatment of the soldiers and sailors that Japan now asks for protection.

Most Australian and American POWs slaved for private Japanese mining companies. And nearly every Japanese company trying to bid on the American high-speed rail contracts used POW slave labor. Even the Japanese rail companies, JR East and Jr Central that have formed all-Japanese consortia to bid on contracts, can trace their history back to Japan’s national railways (Ministry of Railways) and the transport of POWs.

This is a similar situation to the role of France’s state-owned national railway, SNCF, which has been condemned for transporting Jews and others to transit camps during World War II for deportation and certain death. In Congress and state legislatures, SNCF has been called on to account for its wartime activities before they bid on America’s high-speed rail contracts.

On November 4, the SNCF Chairman did just that. He admitted his company’s complicity with Nazi war crimes and expressed his “sorrow and regret.” He pledged that SNCF would “continue to work in partnership with those most deeply affected – to ensure such unspeakable horrors never occur again.” He said that SNCF “has made a long‐term commitment to transparency, education of younger generations, and acts of Remembrance.” The firm also established a website to document its progress toward contrition.

As the Chairman of LaFarge pointed out:
In 1995, the President of France, Jacques Chirac recognized the responsibility of France by stating, “Those dark hours tarnish forever our history, and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupier was seconded by French people, by the French State.” As an arm of the French State, SNCF fully embraces these words and the sorrow they reflect for the victims, survivors, and their families who suffered as a result of our role during the war. 
It took 15 years from France’s blanket State apology for its war crimes and the threat of the loss of billions of dollars of business to bring SNCF this far. Fifteen years have also passed since Japan’s national apology for the war. For Japan, with restive Chinese neighbors and a sluggish economy, threats exist to both its national and economic security.

There were cold commercial reasons for the France’s SNCF to offer its overdue apology to its wartime victims. These are the very same facing Japan’s great corporations. Corporate responsibility resonates through the generations and to the nation.

*As far as I can tell, this brief side-trip was not reported in the Japanese press.

1 comment:

  1. Nothing in the recent Nippon Keizai newspapers that arrive in our genkan mailbox every morning. The same for the Asahi elementary school edition.

    In a somewhat related note, however, there has been mention of the return to Korea (Republic) of various cultural treasures. The theft of Chinese, Korean (other countries?) art and other items parallels the looting and counter-looting documented in "Rape of Europa". Is there going to be an effort to track down all the stolen stuff and give it back?
    Finally, has been the discovery of the use of the bodies of death camp victims, POWs and other unfortunates as German medical school cadavers. In Japan every university with a history from WW2 is stuffed full of jars of bits and pieces of people. Where did they all these bits come from?

    just asking.


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