Apologies aren’t something corporations usually give gracefully, but this week the Japanese automaker Mitsubishi made headlines with a request for forgiveness far more important than the typical explanations stammered after a product recall.
At an event in the Museum of Tolerance in Santa Maria, California, Mitsubishi senior executive Hikaru Kimura apologized for his company’s use of American prisoners of war as forced labor in mines and industrial plants during World War II. The ceremony was preceded by a private event during which Mitsubishi executives and board members personally apologized to the only living survivor of Mitsubishi’s forced labor camps able to attend the event, the 94-year-old former prisoner of war James Murphy. While it was not the first time a corporation apologized for its past moral failures, it is believed to be the first time a Japanese corporation has done so.
"As far as I know, this is a piece of history," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told the Associated Press."It's the first time a major Japanese company has ever made such a gesture. We hope this will spur other companies to join in and do the same."
Other major companies have apologized for benefiting from past atrocities. Two noteworthy examples are the American health insurer Aetna, Inc., which apologized for selling insurance policies in the 1850s which reimbursed slave owners when their slaves died, and the Swedish company IKEA, which apologized for using forced labor in East Germany to build its furniture during the 1970s and 80s.
“Aetna has long acknowledged that for several years shortly after its founding in 1853 that the company may have insured the lives of slaves,” Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge said in a statement in 2002. “We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice.”
Many German companies have also issued apologies for collaborating with the Nazi regime during World War II.
Japan, meanwhile, has long tried to distance itself from its military past, but recently the country’s leadership has been pushing to permit Japanese involvement in military conflict abroad. Since the end of the Second World War, Japan's constitution has prohibited threat or use of force as a means to settle international disputes.
Just last week, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a crucial but contentious vote in Parliament on legislation that will give the army and navy some limited powers to fight in foreign conflicts for the first time in 70 years.
Despite the timing, Murphy stressed that he believes the apology from Mitsubishi was sincere and not self-aggrandizing.
"Being one of the few surviving workers of that time," Mr. Murphy said in a statement, "I find it to be my duty and responsibility to accept Mr. Kimura's apology."
"Hopefully," he added, "the acceptance of this sincere apology will bring some closure and relief to the age-old problems confronting the surviving former Prisoners of War and to their family members."
In 2009 and 2010, the Japanese government also officially apologized to former prisoners of war for the brutal way they were treated during World War II. Around 12,000 American prisoners were sent to imperial Japan and forced to work to support its war efforts, and approximately 900 prisoners were forced to work for Mitsubishi. The company’s executives now say they feel a “deep sense of ethical responsibility for a past tragedy."