• Kyodo

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Japan offered to donate 10 million Swiss francs under the name of the late Empress Kojun to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross during the last days of World War II and the money was secretly transferred in 1949 after a fierce battle over the fund, according to documents at the Swiss Archive Office and the ICRC archives.

The documents show that the United States and Britain claimed the fund was originally theirs, intended to assist their prisoners held by the Imperial Japanese Army, while Switzerland and the ICRC insisted the donation was valid and should be transferred to the ICRC.

Empress Kojun, who died last year at the age of 97, was the wife of the late Emperor Showa.

Japan’s donation pledge for Sfr10 million in early August 1945 was earlier confirmed by official British documents. The new documents reveal the twists and turns of fighting among the three governments and the international organization, and how the unusually big donation was eventually made without Japan — the donor — being fully informed.

In the end, the money was made available from a “special account” that Yokohama Specie Bank held at the Swiss National Bank. The account was dubbed Japan’s secret account during the war.

Based on present-day exchange rates, Sfr10 million would convert to about 700 million yen. Ignoring exchange-rate fluctuations and simply comparing the purchasing power of Swiss francs then and now, it would convert to about 3.3 billion yen.

According to about 50 documents related to the donation dispute, on Aug. 7, 1945, then Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo conveyed Japan’s decision to donate Sfr10 million to the ICRC representative in Japan.

The Red Cross representative expressed an intent to accept the donation to the Foreign Ministry two days later, according to the documents. However, due to technical difficulties, the message explaining Japan’s pledge did not reach the ICRC headquarters until Aug. 17.

The war ended Aug. 15, and on the following day the Swiss government froze Japan’s assets in Switzerland based on agreements with the U.S. and Britain.

Whether the donation was offered before or after the asset freeze formed the basis of the dispute.

Following the freeze, the U.S. and Britain clashed with the Swiss government and the ICRC over the money. Washington and London claimed the donation supposed to be paid out from the special account was originally money they transmitted to Japan for the purpose of improving the treatment of U.S. and British POWs.

The dispute was referred to the Far Eastern Commission and the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces in June 1946. The FEC in October 1946 decided to ban the transmission, saying the ICRC’s claim had no basis.

The issue seemed to have been settled, but the ICRC then hired a group of American lawyers, one of whom was formerly a legal expert at the U.S. State Department.

In March 1949, conceding to the arguments made by the lawyers, the State Department agreed to the transmission, saying it was up to the Swiss authorities to decide on the matter based on Swiss laws.

Britain also withdrew its claim to the money in May 1949.

According to the nonpublic history book of Yokohama Specie Bank, which later changed its name to Bank of Tokyo, the transmission was made in late May 1949.

Switzerland lifted the freeze on Yokohama Specie Bank’s funds and conducted the transmission. But taking into account Britain’s claim that the money was originally theirs, the ICRC kept the process “confidential” and did not report details of the process even to Japan.

Japan’s true reason for making the donation shortly before the end of the war remains unclear.

One possible motive is guessed at in a May 6, 1949, letter from the British deputy foreign minister.

In the letter, the deputy minister said it was clear the donation, pledged on the eve of Japan’s defeat, was aimed at creating a favorable impression internationally to counter Japan’s reputation for inhumane treatment of POWs during the war.

Given that the donation was paid out of Japan’s secret account at Yokohama Specie Bank, it can also be seen that Japan, fearing the Allied Forces confiscating Japan’s assets overseas, tried to evacuate the money from seizure.

During the war, the U.S. and Britain sent funds to Yokohama Specie Bank’s special account through the Swiss government and the ICRC for the purpose of improving the treatment of their countries’ POWs held by the Imperial Army.

Both the U.S. and Britain claim that Japan effectively stole the funds by manipulating exchange rates, and there are allegations that Japan tried to evacuate the special account to a third country or an international institution.

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