Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada officially apologized Monday to former U.S. prisoners of war for the “inhumane treatment” they suffered at the hands of the Imperial Army during World War II.

Okada met with six former POWs and eight of their family members who are in Japan on the first government-sponsored trip for reconciliation and further deepening of mutual understanding between Tokyo and Washington.

“You have all been through hardships during World War II, being taken prisoner by the Japanese military, and suffered extremely inhumane treatment,” Okada told the former POWs during the meeting at the Foreign Ministry.

“On behalf of the Japanese government and as the foreign minister, I would like to offer you my heartfelt apology.”

The group included Lester Tenney, a 90-year old survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March and a professor emeritus at Arizona State University.

Tenney welcomed the Japanese government’s invitation for dialogue with the former POWs.

“This is our opportunity to seek the justice that we have looked for all of these years,” Tenney said.

“We’ve never asked for much. The biggest thing we’ve asked for is recognition that we exist and one of the ways of doing that was for the country of Japan to apologize for what they did to us during World War II.”

The Bataan Death March took place in 1942 in the Philippines after the U.S. surrendered there. Thousands of Americans and Filipinos died after being forced by the Japanese Imperial Army to walk about 100 km to a prison camp.

After being taken prisoner in the Philippines, Tenney was forced to work at the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine in Fukuoka Prefecture until the end of the war.

Tenney expressed frustration Monday that private companies that used POWs for labor, including Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, have not offered a word of apology. He said these companies refused the POWs proper food and medical treatment, and allowed their employees to beat the POWs “for no reason.”

“We have sought from these companies just a letter, just a word saying we are sorry for what we allowed to happen,” Tenney told Okada during the meeting. “And yet these private companies have kept quiet for 65 years and it is insulting because what is happening is that by their keeping quiet, they hope we will die off and all will be back to normal.”

This is the first time the government has officially invited former U.S. POWs to Japan. The government in the past has extended invitations to former POWs from Allied countries such as Britain and the Netherlands.

No Foreign Ministry officials were available to comment on why there had been no official dialogue with U.S. POWs, but Okada recognized this and apologized to the group.

“I am truly sorry that such (dialogue) between Japan and the U.S. has seen a later start than other countries,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement Monday welcoming the new initiative.

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