For the first time since the end of the war, Australian Joseph Coombs stepped onto Japanese soil, bringing back bitter memories of his days as a prisoner of war forced to work for the mining company run by Prime Minister Taro Aso’s family in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Coombs, 88, and James McAnulty, the son of late POW and Aso Mining Co. worker Patrick McAnulty, arrived Sunday in Tokyo hoping to meet the prime minister and receive an apology for the hardships they endured.
“We’d like an apology for the brutal treatment and the conditions we had to work under,” Coombs told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview Thursday. “The memory will always be there, but an apology will help ease some of the pain that we experienced.”
Coombs became a POW in 1942, building roads in Singapore and Kobe before arriving at Fukuoka Branch Camp 26 in May 1945.
Until the end of the war, Coombs was forced to drag his feet into the hot, suffocating depths of the Aso family’s coal mines and toil on little food.
Coombs said he usually weighed more than 80 kg on average, but by the time he left Japan his weight had dropped to about 45 kg.
The labor was “very tough, very tough,” Coombs said. “When we went down in the mines, we worked long hours on little food and I lost a lot of weight.”
The conditions were terrible, Coombs said, recalling the ever-present danger of cave-ins. He said it was just “pure luck” he wasn’t trapped and killed.
And along with the dust, there was always violence in the air.
“There was always some violence,” Coombs said. “You only had to have one bad guard, one brutal guard, and that could ruin the whole thing; they could make our lives” difficult.
McAnulty, 62, meanwhile, said he spent his childhood in Scotland hearing about the pain and suffering his father went through as a POW. Like Coombs, McAnulty’s father was captured in 1942 and wound up at Aso Mining’s Yoshikuma coal mine in June 1945.
“The memories affected him tremendously,” McAnulty said. “I heard horror stories of cruelty and humiliation and starvation.”
While it was Aso’s father who headed Aso Mining, Aso himself became president of Aso Cement Co., its successor, during the 1970s before going on to politics.
Both Coombs and McAnulty separately sent letters to Aso this year requesting an apology for the “inhumane treatment” and for neglecting to recognize that Aso Mining used POWs as laborers. They also sought financial compensation, saying the POWs were not paid.
Aso has not yet replied.
Katsuhiko Takaike, a lawyer who has been studying the issue of postwar compensation, admitted he was not familiar with the Aso Mining case but said Aso probably would be better off not apologizing.
“I can understand that (Coombs and McAnulty’s father) suffered terribly and they want an apology,” Takaike said. “But Japanese POWs also suffered illegal treatment too. We would have to start talking about that, too, or else it would be one-sided.”
Takaike said a couple of civil lawsuits filed by former POWs against the Japanese government have failed. In 2004, the Supreme Court rejected two suits filed by POWs and civilians from various countries, including the Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States.
The top court upheld the district and high court rulings, stating that compensation for war damages had already been resolved through treaties between Japan and the other countries and that individuals did not have the right to sue.
“Some argue that (the treaties) were concluded on a country-to-country basis and hence do not restrict (lawsuits) from individuals,” Takaike said. “But I don’t think that argument can be accepted.”
Regarding Coombs and McAnulty, the government said it paid ¥4.5 billion in compensation to Allied POWs in accordance with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, through the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“The money was not a payment of wages but for the government to express its intention to compensate for the unjust hardships that the Allied POWs suffered while they were prisoners in Japan,” the government said in a statement, adding that while the money was allocated to 14 countries, including Australia, it does not know how each country distributed the cash.
Aiko Utsumi, a visiting professor at Waseda University and author of “Nihongun no Horyo Seisaku” (“The POW Policy of the Japanese Military”), agreed it would be difficult for former POWs to seek financial compensation and urged Aso to face the POWs instead of continuing to ignore them like he has done so far.
“I think should Aso meet with them — it is natural for him to apologize for the past,” Utsumi said. “Aso is the heir to the mine that was using them . . . and just briefly saying that (he was sorry) for their past troubles and that they suffered difficult labor at his coal mine could change things.”
Coombs and McAnulty both stressed that an apology was what they wanted and that compensation was not high on their list.
Although the Japanese government at first refused to acknowledge that Aso Mining used POWs, it was forced recently to come clean after the health ministry revealed evidence showing that 300 POWs, including over 197 Australians and 101 Britons, had worked there.
“Aso took a brave step by admitting that the forced labor was there,” McAnulty said. “My point of view is that it would take a brave man, though, to apologize.”