WASHINGTON – Former U.S. prisoners of war forced into slave labor for private Japanese companies during World War II are accelerating their campaign to seek compensation from the companies that profited from their work.
But Japan has rejected the demand, saying the issue was settled under an international treaty ratified by the United States 50 years ago. Tokyo says it is ready to fight any legal action mounted by the POWs.
Moves to seek reparations from Japanese companies over wartime forced labor stem from last July’s passage of a California statute allowing former POWs held by Nazi Germany, Japan and their allies to file World War II damages suits until 2010.
Based on that law, some 30 lawsuits have already been filed in California courts by former POWs against Japanese companies.
The Center for Internee Rights, a group representing the POWs, has recently launched a political campaign calling on 10 other U.S. states to introduce measures allowing similar legal action.
The campaign led to the Rhode Island Senate passing a bill that would allow such action. Moves to seek wartime reparation from Japan have also appeared in West Virginia, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
“Now I, along with many of my former POW friends, are seeking justice from the Japanese companies that placed us into servitude,” Lester Tenney, a former POW in Japan, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held Wednesday to examine historical and legal issues on forced labor in Japan.
Tenney, author of the 1995 book “My Hitch in Hell,” was one of some 12,000 U.S. servicemen taken captive on the Bataan Peninsula of the Philippines when the country fell to the Imperial Japanese Army in April 1942.
At the hearing, Tenney spoke of the hardships he suffered at the Miike coal mine in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, owned by Mitsui Mining Co.
“I was forced to shovel coal 12 hours a day, 28 days a month for over two years,” he said. “The reward I received for this hard labor was beatings by the civilian workers in the mine.
“This is not a tirade against Japan as a nation. I have no animosity toward the Japanese people. However, I am entitled to compensation from the Japanese company that enslaved me.”
Tokyo has dismissed the compensation demand by former POWs as an issue settled under the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty.
Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Shunji Yanai told a news conference Tuesday, “Japan has no option but to counter the campaign in court.” The remarks indicate Japan will fully support Japanese firms named by the POWs in damages lawsuits.
About 50,000 U.S. servicemen were taken prisoner during World War II. About half of them were sent to Japan, where many of them were forced to perform heavy labor for Japanese companies.
At the end of the war, however, the U.S. failed to pursue the forced labor issue as it was apparently preoccupied with helping rebuild Japan.
The San Francisco treaty waived the victims’ rights to seek compensation from Japan. It also included an agreement by Japan not to make any claim to assets that the U.S. confiscated from Japanese companies shortly after the end of the war.
“The Japanese side has something to say to the U.S. regarding the compensation issue. Reopening that lid will result in grave consequences,” Yanai said, apparently threatening to revive the issue of seized Japanese assets.
The U.S. government, basically supporting Tokyo’s position, remains cool to the former POWs’ moves to demand reparation from Japan.
“It is clear from the language of the 1951 peace treaty that the United States intended to waive its claims and those of its nationals against Japan and its nationals,” said David Ogden, acting assistant attorney general in charge of civil affairs.
Ronald Bettauer, deputy legal adviser at the State Department, said the U.S. confiscated some $90 million worth of assets owned by the Japanese government, individuals and private firms.
The proceeds were used to finance the monetary claims of U.S. nationals who were victims of Japan’s wartime crimes, including forced labor, he said.
“We believe that the treaty leaves no sound legal basis for the United States or its nationals to seek further monetary recovery against Japanese corporations, and that the treaty remains the supreme law of the land,” Bettauer said.
But some legal experts question the U.S. government’s interpretation of the treaty.
Harold Maier, professor of law at Vanderbilt University, said the San Francisco peace treaty should not, and cannot, be taken to preclude private actions by U.S. nationals against Japanese nationals.
“There is no evidence in the treaty’s language or purpose that the Allied powers agreed to excuse the government of Japan or Japanese nationals from future private claims to recover for these injuries,” Maier said.
Former POW Tenney said: “I once again feel that I have been taken prisoner — but this time by my own country.
“The Japanese beat me with guns and swords. My country is humiliating me, and the memories of those who did not survive, with words.”