CARLSBAD, Calif. — As a survivor of Imperial Japan’s infamous prisoner-of-war camps, forced labor at a Mitsui coal mine in Fukuoka and the horrors of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, I know anti-Americanism when I see it. Some say the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is anti-American. I know that it is not.
A recent Washington Post editorial identified a DPJ member of the Upper House as a denier of 9/11 facts, and thus came to the grand conclusion that he and the DPJ are anti-American and untrustworthy allies. Although the lawmaker’s view of 9/11 is troubling, it is a minor one and is not shared by other DPJ members I have met.
More important, neither this lawmaker nor any of the DPJ’s actions show contempt for, or distrust of, Americans. Indeed, it is through the DPJ that justice for Americans brutalized as POWs and ignored as survivors will soon be attained. This was impossible through decades of Liberal Democratic Party rule.
On my last visit to Japan in 2008, I told many Diet members that American POWs had been excluded from their government’s Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative, which began in 1995 as a visitation, remembrance and reconciliation program between Japan and Allied POWs.
Japan over the past 15 years has spent more than $14 million to invite 1,200 former POWs and their families from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to visit Japan as well as to support archival research on POWs held by Japan. I told Diet members and journalists that by being excluded from the initiative, we American former POWs felt abused once again.
I recalled the words of the Japanese commandant at our first POW camp, who bellowed that Americans were “lower than dogs” and that Japanese “would never be friends” with them. The DPJ members with whom I talked were all embarrassed to learn this and promised to do what they could to correct this slight to Americans — now Japan’s closest ally.
In response to my plea, as well as those of others, DPJ members in December 2008 compelled the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to reveal on the Diet floor secret and never-examined documents on individual POWs and the Japanese companies for which they were forced to work.
The ministry confirmed that Prime Minister Taro Aso’s family company used 300 British, Dutch and Australian POWs in their coal mines. In February 2009 their inquiries led the Japanese government to make its first official statement of apology to former POWs of Imperial Japan.
A DPJ study group was also organized to examine the issue of the brutal treatment and lack of Japanese contrition toward all POWs captured by the Japanese. The result was that last summer the LDP government offered $180,000 to invite seven aging American POWs and their spouses or caregivers to Japan.
My brother POWs and I view this program, originating in the former LDP government, as insulting and demeaning. It appears to us as merely an effort to delay a sincere apology until we are all dead. Not only will few POWs be able to participate, but also the funding is very small compared to what Japan has provided former POWs of other countries. It made us once again feel that we were being treated “lower than a dog.”
It dismisses the now-accepted understanding that the victims of torture and abuse are not just those who received it, but includes the spouses, children and families who had to endure the post-traumatic stress with them. And it ignores the main point of any program for former POWs of the Japanese, which is responsibility and remembrance.
I trust that the DPJ will make an honest effort to widen the program so as to include all surviving American former POWs as well as their widows and descendants. I believe that the DPJ government will work hard to mend the wounds of the Americans who have been so long ignored.
And unlike the LDP in the past, the DPJ will open all POW records to the public and support research on American POWs.
These efforts can only strengthen and confirm the current strong bonds between our two countries. The U.S.-Japan Alliance was created and is maintained by the contributions and sacrifices of members of the American military dedicated to creating peace and democracy in Japan. The American POWs of Japan are part of this Alliance history.
As Upper House member Yukihisa Fujita, the foil of the Washington Post editorial, wrote in the Asahi Shimbun Sept. 28, 2001 (repeated in the International Herald Tribune the next month under the headline “Japan needs a political settlement on its past”): “Japan, which refuses to listen to such demands [for war redress], saying it has legally settled the claims of former U.S. prisoners of war with the peace treaty, stands out in international society as running counter to the trend. I hear that it’s not money that the former prisoners of war are demanding. What they want is an apology to heal their psychological wounds so that they may live the remaining years of their lives in peace.”
Yes, our remaining years are numbered, and we live for the reality of peace, and the importance of responsibility and remembrance. It is unfortunate that the Washington Post did not see this side of the DPJ. To ask for an honest accounting of Japan’s history with the United States is not the sign of a government that dislikes or mistrusts the U.S.
The desire to make amends for past misconduct signals an uncommon courage and strength that have been missing in Japan during the 50-odd years of LDP rule. I welcome the DPJ’s feelings of compassionate understanding of the weak, sick and aging former American POWs.
The DPJ members I know are working hard to restore trust between the U.S. and Japan damaged by a long failure of Japan to acknowledge its past. There is no doubt that recognizing the plight of American POWs represents the foundation of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.
Lester Tenney, Ph.D., a survivor of the Bataan Death March, is a past national commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.