The foreign minister of Japan, Taro Aso, will receive this week an appeal to his "honor and decency" in the repayment of a small family debt that is now more than 60 years old.
The request comes in a personal letter from an Australian registered nurse, Marilyn Caruana, on behalf of her father, John William Hall, now 87. He was formerly employed — or exploited — by Aso’s father Takakichi as an allied prisoner of war in forced labor at the family’s Kyushu coal mine in 1945.
The debt is Hall’s unpaid wages.
He was one of 197 Australian prisoners (two died), 101 British, and two Dutch, held at Keisen Camp 26 in Fukuoka prefecture that supplied men to the Yoshikuma pit belonging to Aso Mining Co, now the Aso Group. They were held in slave-like conditions, almost starved, and made to work deep coal seams that constantly collapsed. Taro Aso, 65, who ran the firm from 1973-79, has never apologized or acknowledged his company’s illicit employment of prisoners. The Japanese government has never paid any compensation to any individuals.
It was a long time ago, but it remains a contemporary issue because of the extraordinary indifference in Tokyo. Here, an inexplicably stubborn — or just stupid — government fails in a simple matter of obligation [giri], a sentiment allegedly integral to Japanese culture. Yet the world’s second biggest economy, with a foreign exchange reserve of $836 billion, declines to pay a few very old men what would amount to less than $1m in total. Why? Tokyo offers no explanation.
Nobody knows precisely how much money is owed to the prisoners, or even exactly who should pay whom, but on Japanese government orders in 1942, they were supposed to be paid a few yen a week. Yet of the thousands of POWs held in wartime Japan, hardly any enslaved worker prisoners are known to have received one penny.
Marilyn Caruana discovered the Aso connection when I traced her father and eight other Australian inmates of Camp 26, and interviewed them for a Sydney newspaper. They were astonished and several expressed displeasure about Japan’s having appointed to high office someone they regard as neglectful of a basic human responsibility. (An official of the German embassy in Tokyo says its government would not have made such an appointment of someone like Aso.)
"I would like to give Mr Aso a piece of my mind," said Joe Coombs, 85, of Regent’s Park, NSW, a former infantry corporal who toiled at Aso Mining and never received his wages. "I’d like to tell him what happened: the beatings, the starvation diet, the back-breaking work, the danger. Then I’d invite him to apologise."
Coombs, like ex-farmer Hall of Trundle, NSW, and each of their POW fellows, emphasize their wish to avoid any impression of seeking large reparation funds from Japan. They also acknowledge receipt of $A25,000 each in 2001 as goodwill compensation paid by the Australian government. But the lost wages are legitimate back pay.
In her letter to Aso, which she spontaneously decided to write, Caruana asks for the cash, and an apology. She tells Aso that her army signalman "dad" was captured in Singapore in 1942 and taken to Japan where he remained until 1945, first working in a shipyard, then at Aso Mining.
She writes: "He endured tremendous hardships. He worked 12 hours a shift for 13 days, then 1 day off to do his washing. He lived on 3 cups of half-cooked rice a day. Dad tells us [his family of seven offspring] the dangerous treacherous conditions the workers endured."
Directly addressing Taro Aso she continues: "As your father [Takakichi] was the mine owner, he allowed the prisoners to be treated in a shocking unhumane way. My father is now 87 and he is very disabled due to the effects of those conditions. My request to you on behalf of my father is to give him a written apology and remuneration for his suffering over the years."
Her final paragraph states: "As you are the foreign minister, please do not quote Geneva conventions, peace treaties, court cases, or any of those legal matters. Responding favorably to this request would be the honorable and decent thing for you to do. Your dad owes my dad some money for work done."
In fact, Japan’s failure to pay any personal money to enslaved POWs does come under various legal protections. Although Japan signed the 1929 Geneva Convention that outlawed POW forced labor, no ratification followed. And as recently as June 16 a Tokyo appeals court dismissed a law suit against 10 Japanese firms from 42 Chinese forced into wartime work. Although the court admitted illegal enslavement, it was consistent with previous rulings in rejecting any legal redress, largely because of passing time — "which is what they want," as one ex-prisoner said.
Various pacts, from the 1951 San Francisco Multilateral Peace Treaty to later ones with South Korea and China, protect Japan against compensation payments. But when these agreements were signed, the extent of Japan’s war crimes — the sexual degradation of thousands of Asian "comfort women" for instance — was unknown. In the POWs’ case, Tokyo pleaded lack of funds in 1951. The US accepted this and persuaded reluctant allies to agree, but that plea is now strenuously disputed.
It was part of what the leading authority on the prisoners’ payment, Linda Goetz Holmes, an American author and history adviser to the Japanese Imperial Records Interagency Working Group in Washington, describes as Tokyo’s "masterful con game." She adds: "Japanese corporate CEOs who made millions in wartime profits led Americans to believe they were virtually penniless, and might need to turn to the Soviets for help if we didn’t provide it."
The honor argument, touched upon in Caruana’s letter, has also reached a much higher official level. According to Holmes, as the Clinton presidential administration drew to a close in late 2000, the deputy US Secretary of State Thomas Pickering had some advice for the new Japanese ambassador, Shunji Yanai. Pickering said that despite the 1951 treaty, Japan "DOES have a moral obligation to them [the POWs], and you should look into doing something about it." Nothing has been done.
American scholar William Underwood is investigating Japan’s wartime forced labor in a Kyushu University research project. In addition to the POW cash, most of it probably still sitting in Japan’s Postal Savings accounts, the total including unpaid money for the much larger contingent of Asian slave workers forcibly taken to Japan, could be worth today about $2 billion, he believes. That would include financial multipliers such as compound interest.
Yet Japanese corporations, government departments, and the Bank of Japan and Tokyo-Mitsubishi Bank, which are thought to be holding funds unpaid to the Asians, continue to pursue a "six-decade record of cover-up, dishonesty, and denial," he says. "Can Japan realistically expect historical reconciliation as long as it evades honest accounting of past conduct?"
Marylin Caruana is more personal: "Allowing Mr Aso to be a leading public figure, especially foreign minister, when he comes from a background of an obviously selfish and arrogant family, reflects badly on the Japanese people. Dad is a soft gentle person who welcomes all regardless of color or race. But Mr Aso’s dad still owes my dad some money. It should be paid."
Indeed it should.
CHRISTOPHER REED is a British journalist living in Japan. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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