LOS ANGELES — As Japanese companies ready themselves to bid on California’s high-speed rail project this year, one man is asking them to pause and remember the past.

Lester Tenney, 90, is using the occasion to renew his call for an apology from Japanese firms that used him and other prisoners of war as forced labor more than 65 years ago.

“We are not opposed to the Japanese companies winning the high-speed rail. But only after they acknowledge that they treated us exactly like slaves,” Tenney said in an interview.

In a letter in January, Tenney asked California officials to press Japanese corporations to acknowledge human rights violations committed against U.S. POWs at their manufacturing and other sites during the war.

Tenney was captured in the Philippines after U.S. troops surrendered there in 1942. He survived the Bataan Death March and was sent to Japan to work in the Mitsui Miike coal mine in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture.

“During my time in the Mitsui coal mine, my arm and back were broken and my head split open due to the beatings in the mine by Mitsui employees,” Tenney wrote in his letter.

Japanese firms have yet to announce partnerships to bid on high-speed rail projects. But they have been involved throughout the planning stages.

“Kawasaki wishes to take a lead role in the California high-speed rail project,” said Yoshinori Kanehana, head of Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of Japan-based Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., one of the potential Japanese bidders, at a presentation in Los Angeles in January.

The company already has a strong presence as a railway rolling stock provider for states on the U.S. East Coast.

The California high-speed rail authorities said they value Japanese companies for their experience in the field.

For Tenney, these are “the very same companies that used and abused us.” The companies, or their subsidiaries, are among more than 50 that used American POWs as forced labor during the war, according to documents published by a professor at the National Defense Academy in 1983.

According to researcher Linda Goetz Holmes, about 25,000 U.S. military and civilian POWs toiled at Japanese factories and mines both in Japan and Japanese-occupied territory during the war. They were not paid for long hours of dangerous work, and in some cases workers were not provided proper tools, or had supplies and letters sent from home withheld.

The petition may be one of Tenney’s last campaigns in his long fight for recognition. He attempted to sue Mitsui Mining Co. in 1999 but his claim was dismissed.

The efforts of Tenney and other POWs to bring suits against Japanese companies also saw opposition from the U.S. State Department. The 1951 treaty with Japan waived American rights to bring wartime claims against Japanese nationals.

Holmes estimates that a few thousand American POWs in Japan during the war are alive today. Most of them are in their 90s.

American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, one group that lobbied with Tenney, disbanded last year because most members could no longer make it to meetings.

Tenney is not the first to try to address old grievances via the project. A law proposed in 2010 would have required bidders on high-speed rail projects to disclose their complicity in transporting people to concentration camps during the war.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, saying it would needlessly place the state “in a position of acknowledging the activities of companies during that time.”

But the French National Railway (SNCF) voluntarily took the dead law to heart. In press statements, the company discussed its role in transporting prisoners, expressed “profound sorrow and regret for the consequences of its acts” and vowed to contribute to education on the Holocaust.

Wholly owned by the French state, SNCF is in a different position from the companies to which Tenney appeals. Nevertheless, he hopes that Japanese companies will make similar efforts.

When asked about Tenney’s petition, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Chairman Tadaharu Ohashi questioned the appropriateness of bringing up the events of the war in relation to the rail project.

“This issue has been resolved between the governments involved,” he said.

Japan invited Tenney and other American POWs to visit last September to offer a “heartfelt apology” for the inhumane treatment they suffered.

While expressing gratitude for the apology, Tenney called Ohashi’s stance “a cop-out,” emphasizing that the corporations are independent of the government.

“It seems to me (the companies) probably should apologize, depending on the nature of their involvement and the degree to which it was a prevalent practice,” Norman Mineta, former U.S. secretary of transportation, said. “If they did those things, then it’s probably the right thing to do.” Mineta spent part of his childhood in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the war.

As adamant as Tenney is that he and others are owed an apology, he holds no grudge against Japan itself. In his book recounting his POW experience, he even recalls forming a cordial relationship with a worker in the Mitsui mine. Tenney also held a long friendship with a Japanese man who visited the United States as an exchange student.

In the end, he wants the best contractor to win the right to build California’s envisioned high-speed railway system.

“All we are saying is, if you want the contract, you should be responsible on social issues, and you should show your responsibility,” Tenney said.

“What we’re looking for is nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing that after all these years of telling people what went on, the Japanese companies will finally acknowledge that it happened and apologize.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.