Japan Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada apologized Monday to a group of former US prisoners of war for being abused and used as slave labor during World War II. It was the first public declaration of contrition the World War II veterans have received from Japan, signaling another step toward laying to rest the residual ill-feelings left by the war.
The apology came a month after a US official attended the annual memorial peace celebration in Hiroshima for the first time, raising questions about whether the two were connected.
The six POWs, led by Lester Tenney, are on the first trip to Japan for US veterans sponsored by the Japanese government and with the backing of the State Department.
"I offer my deep, heartfelt apology for the inhumane treatment you suffered," Mr. Okada told the former POWs. In May last year, Japan’s ambassador to the US made an apology to a veterans’ group in Texas, but the text was never officially published.
“I respect what Ambassador Fujisaki did – because he stepped into the lions’ den of 500 veterans and their families – but I want that apology to be publicized so Japanese people can hear it too,” Dr. Tenney said on Sunday evening, before he met the foreign minister.
Today Tenney – a veteran of the Bataan Death March and two years of slave labor in a Japanese coal mine where he endured bone-breaking beatings – got his wish.
However, Tenney still wants the companies – or their corporate successors - who enslaved him and the other POWs, to acknowledge and apologize for what they did.
Beatings for not bowing
“They won’t even answer our letters. They think it will go away but it won’t. I’m not after money. I’m in my 90s now, I don’t need a dime – just for them to admit what happened to us,” said Tenney.
“The soldiers who captured us in the Philippines, I can almost understand why they treated us harshly – up to the day before I was trying to kill them. I may have killed the best friend of the soldier who captured me. But the brutality of the civilian workers who beat me in the coal mine with shovels and pick-axe handles because I didn’t bow low enough or work hard enough – to this day I don’t understand,” said Tenney.
Former POWs from other Allied countries including Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Holland, have been invited on previous trips to Japan, but this is the first for US veterans. Tenney said he has been “dumbfounded” as to why American POWs had been excluded from such programs but there has been speculation that it has been linked to the lack of an apology for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Last month US Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, became the first official American representative to attend the annual memorial peace ceremony in Hiroshima of the atomic bombing, and will visit Nagasaki later this month.
An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphatically denied there was any connection between the ambassador’s visits and the invitation to the POWs.
“This is the first time the Japanese government has done anything for us and the first time the State Department and the US Embassy has done anything to support us,” said Tenney who met Mr. Roos after the apology from the foreign minister.