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Oral history exposes Japan’s wartime enslavement of POWs

by Jeff Kingston

UNJUST ENRICHMENT: How Japan’s Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs, by Linda Goetz Holmes. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001, 202 pp., $24.95.

During World War II, nearly 50,000 U.S. soldiers and civilians became prisoners of the Japanese. Approximately half of this total “were sent to do slave labor in the factories, shipyards and mines owned by Japan’s industrial giants, now among the richest in the world: Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Showa Denko, Nippon Steel, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and at least 40 other Japanese companies.”

This book focuses on the grim experiences of these American POWs and the often brutal treatment they suffered while in captivity. Linda Goetz Holmes points out that nearly 40 percent of American POWs died in Japanese captivity, while only slightly over 1 percent shared a similar fate in the Nazi camps. Many of these died from “friendly fire” while being transported by ships from points of capture back to Japan. She estimates that just over 4,000 POWs died while engaged in slave labor.

This book merits attention and scrutiny — and not only because of the horrific suffering endured by many of these POWs, some of it highlighted with shocking photos. Recently there has been a flurry of lawsuits filed by ex-POWs in U.S. courts against Japanese firms seeking redress for wartime forced labor. The revelations and allegations in this book are likely to inflame public opinion and help the claimants’ cause. In addition, the author is a member of a U.S. congressional panel charged with looking into war crimes committed by the Nazis and their allies. She will thus be involved in an official investigation that promises to dredge up unsavory acts committed by some Japanese still alive and Japanese firms still operating. The panel may also shed further light on the complicity of U.S. officials in covering up many of the alleged war crimes for reasons that may not seem so compelling more than 50 years on.

The subtitle referring to postwar fortunes is sensationalist and unsupported, and it undermines the overall credibility of this book. The use of POWs during the war is backed up with some 400 interviews with POWs and some archival documentation, but the connection between this and building postwar fortunes is not made. Holmes could also have usefully limned the extensive literature on the Occupation and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convened in Tokyo as it relates to the nonprosecution of those people and firms she accuses of war crimes.

What this book does do is to present a gripping oral history gleaned from survivor interviews and to document, as far as is possible with limited archival sources, the use of POWs as slave laborers in Japan’s factories between 1942 and ’45. It also documents the refusal of the U.S. government to prosecute any of the 79 Japanese corporations involved in POW slave-labor practices. She points out that in contrast to the considerable compensation paid to Nazi slave laborers by firms that used them, “to date not one penny in compensation has been paid by any Japanese corporation to the Allied slave laborers who were beaten, starved and worked to death in the factories, mines and shipyards owned by Japan’s industrial giants.”

Readers will also learn about the misuse of funds donated by Allied governments expressly for relief of Allied POWs held by the Japanese. The donations were instead diverted to finance the Japanese war effort.

Holmes justifies the use of atomic weapons against Japan by pointing out that the sudden surrender saved the lives of the nearly 200,000 POWs held by the Japanese. She cites explicit orders from Tokyo to annihilate all POWs rather than allowing any to escape, apparently a policy known in Washington. In her view, this was a factor in the decision to end the war quickly by using the atomic bombs. On Wake Island, earlier in the war, this policy led the Japanese commander to have all POWs held there killed when he feared that his position might be overrun.

Given the knowledge of the zaibatsu’s use of POWs as slave labor, Holmes suggests that the war-crimes tribunal held in Tokyo after the war denied justice to these victims. She argues that the slave labor was centrally organized, featuring extensive and sustained cooperation between the government, the military and companies desperate for workers. The companies paid the military for the workers and supervised and assigned duties to the POWs. According to her informants, the POWs almost never received promised pay and worked in miserable conditions under duress. This system of forced labor was in violation of international covenants and was done with the knowledge of company executives and government officials. The POWs were prized because many were skilled and more productive than the Japanese workers left over from military conscription.

“Unjust Enrichment” probes several chilling questions, sometimes in gruesome detail. Holmes asks, “How were Japan’s companies able to use so many prisoners in war-related jobs, in violation of international law? Why did their employees beat prisoners so brutally, steal their food, and lock up mail and Red Cross packages? And why weren’t the heads of these companies prosecuted after the war for making such treatment standard policy? How did the companies of Japan literally get away with murder?” There are no satisfying answers.

Holmes admits that the proof she offers is not sufficient to successfully prosecute Japanese firms in U.S. courts, but suggests that for public relations and the sake of their business interests in the U.S. it would behoove them to make good-will gestures and offer compensation. The systematic destruction of evidence in the period between the surrender and the arrival of the Occupation troops (almost three weeks) helped cover the tracks of those responsible, but the large gaps in documentation are nearly as damning. The fact that so much of the documentation related to POWs in the government and company archives was destroyed suggests that there was fear of being held accountable. This book is evidence that not everyone is ready to put this tragic past behind us.