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Shift the focus, Mr. Prime Minister

by Lester Tenney

Special To The Japan Times

Sometimes things fall apart so that other things can fall together. Such is the case of defining or redefining the meaning of “aggression” before and during World War II. It’s time now, Mr. Prime Minister, to change your focus from “aggression” to “apology.”

The apology I speak of was made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Katsuya Okada, on Sept. 13, 2010, to six American former prisoners of war (POWs) of the Japanese and their family members, who were invited to Japan as guests of the Japanese Government for an opportunity to share the history of World War II in a peaceful and friendly atmosphere.

At the outset of the meeting, Minister Okada welcomed the former POWs and stated that, even though circumstances of the past had made it difficult, he felt sorry for waiting so long before starting an invitation program for American former POWs, which had been available to former POWs of other countries for 15 years.

Minister Okada stood in front of Japanese television reporters and correspondents from all over the world to apologize to the former POWs: “On behalf of the Government of Japan and as minister for foreign affairs, I extend my heartfelt apology to the former POWs over the inhumane treatment and sufferings they experienced while they were held captive by the Imperial Japanese Army.”

Minister Okada added that he hoped this visit to Japan by the former POWs would be an opportunity to overcome their past bitter feelings and cooperate in promoting better Japan-U.S. relations in the future.

As a former POW of the Japanese, and as one of the POWs in attendance at that historic meeting, I can assure you, Mr. Prime Minister, that much of the past bitter feelings evaporated as we heard his words. His proper apology atoned for the inhumane treatment by the Japanese Imperial Army.

It has been my privilege to have served as liaison between the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and American former POWs and their descendants in arranging the visitation programs.

Thus far there have been three annual visitation programs, starting in 2010. The responses from former POWs who participated in these programs are heartwarming — men, 89 to 94 years old, with tears in their eyes, saying “thank you” to the citizens of the very country that years earlier had forced them to work as slaves in a factory or a mine.

Meeting and communicating with the officers and workers at the very companies who enslaved the POWs was especially meaningful.

When the former POWs were ready to return home each said in his own way: “We can hardly believe how wonderful we have been treated while on this visit to Japan. Everyone has been so helpful and friendly, it’s easy to forgive and get on with living.”

Mr. Prime Minister, I hope you can see the value of this apology, not only to the former American POWs but also to Japanese citizens who came into contact with these former soldiers.

The apology to former American POWs has helped strengthen relations between our two countries.

Instead of arguing about who was the aggressor and its meaning, please, Mr. Abe, allow the friendship generated through an apology to be our mutual goal.

We former POWs, like the Japanese who were directly involved in our daily lives, need closure to events of the past, and we are anxiously waiting for this year’s program to be announced so that more American and Japanese lives can be touched.

Seventy years is a long time to wait. It is about time to come to terms with the past without using semantics to change the true meaning of events that touched our lives.

Mr. Prime Minister, don’t let this opportunity for understanding slip away, an apology is so much more important than trying to determine the meaning of “aggressor.”

Lester Tenney, past national commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, is a former POW and survivor of the Bataan Death March.