On July 19, Mitsubishi Materials Corp. took the landmark step of issuing a formal apology to American ex-Prisoners of War (POWs) forced to work under “inhumane” conditions in copper mines run by the company’s predecessor – Mitsubishi Mining – during World War II. The apology was a first by a major Japanese firm. An estimated 12,000 US POWs were forced to work by Japanese government and private companies during the war. The apology was delivered by Hikaru Kimura, a senior executive of Mitsubishi Materials, at a ceremony held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Kimura expressed a “most remorseful apology” to the estimated 900 POWs who were forced to work in conditions of “harsh, severe hardships.”
Also present was Yukio Okamoto, a Mitsubishi outside director, and former POW James Murphy of California, who accepted the apology.
Okamoto said he “entered the room with a heavy heart, seeking forgiveness,” adding that “we also have to apologize for not apologizing earlier.” (See interview, below.) Okamoto, a former diplomat and advisor to then-prime ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto, Junichiro Koizumi, and Yasuo Fukuda, is also a member of the 16-member Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and World Order in the 21st Century,” which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe established to counsel him on a statement to be issued around August 15 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
It’s unclear if Mitsubishi’s actions, or the advisory panel, will have any influence on the content of Abe’s statement, but the prime minister may be bending to considerable pressure to emulate his predecessors Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi and acknowledge Japan’s “aggression” and “colonial rule” in the first half of the 20th century.
The Japanese government has officially apologized to ex-American POWs on several occasions, but long stood firm against providing any compensation on the grounds that the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 had settled all claims stemming from World War II. In recent times, the ex-POWs have dropped their demand for compensation, but have continued their anguished search for an apology from Japanese firms that exploited them as forced labor in what Okamoto termed “inhumane conditions.”
In the past, some prominent Japanese firms have quietly considered issuing apologies, and perhaps even compensation, to ex-POWs, only to encounter deep resistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which cited the San Francisco Treaty. But Okamoto says the MOFA has inaudibly shifted its stance. “The MOFA is no longer saying that the issue was settled by the Peace Treaty, and that we have to be mindful of legal stability. They are no longer holding on to that position.” Mitsubishi Materials’s actions could now spur other Japanese firms to follow suit.
The most poignant aspect of Mitsubishi’s action was not the apology itself, but the genuineness conveyed by words used to reinforce the apology. In a talk before the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCCJ) in Tokyo on July 22, just days after the Los Angeles event, Okamoto said that Mitsubishi is prepared to extend the same apology to former British, Dutch, and Australian POWs. “Ours is one of the companies who tortured POWs most, so we have to apologize,” he said.
COMPENSATION FOR FORCED CHINESE LABORERS: Meanwhile, in what could have widespread repercussions in Northeast Asia, Mitsubishi Materials officials have privately revealed that they are close to announcing an agreement with close to 4,000 Chinese citizens (or bereaved family of) who were used as forced labor during World War II. The company will acknowledge “a historical fact that the company violated human rights during World War II,” and will express its “heartfelt regret” and “deep apology,” for its actions.
From 1944-1945, upwards of 37,000 Chinese were brought to Japan due to severe labor shortages in the war-ravaged country. An estimated 6,830 died while working under harsh conditions. Mitsubishi Mining exploited close to 4,000, of whom about 1,500 have been found and identified.
Each of the roughly 4,000 victims (or their respective families) will receive about $16,140 in compensation.
Mitsubishi acted even though Japan’s Supreme Court had previously dismissed in 1997 a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Chinese laborers. The Court ruled that all claims had been settled by the 1972 communique announcing the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. The Supreme Court ruling was in line with the stance of the Japanese government.
Much as former forced laborers from Korea had done in Seoul, the Chinese victims had begun to file suit in Chinese courts. In Korea, the high court ruled in 2013 that former Korean forced laborers were entitled to compensation, even though the Korean government at the time agreed with Tokyo that the 1965 Treaty between Japan and Korea had settled all claims stemming from World War II.
China has never officially demanded compensation from Japanese companies, arguing that Japan’s political leadership was responsible for war crimes, not the Japanese people, thereby absolving private Japanese firms of responsibility.
Negotiations between Mitsubishi and representatives of Chinese forced laborers began in early 2014. Mitsubishi officials were anxious to have the issue resolved by this year, prior to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Mitsubishi, which is looking to expand business in China, also did not want the forced labor issue tarnishing its image.
KOREA NOT INCLUDED: Thousands of Koreans were also forced to work in Japan during the war, but thus far Mitsubishi has not reached out to the 6,489 who toiled for its various group companies, including 4,150 for Mitsubishi Mining.
Okamoto says the legal circumstances differ between Chinese and Korea laborers exploited in Japan. Korea came under Japanese colonial rule in 1910, so Koreans were technically Japanese citizens ordered to work, as were all Japanese, under the 1938 mobilization law. Korean laborers were paid the same amount as Japanese nationals, though the currency in which they were paid became useless at the end of the war. The 2013 Korean court ruling says that the Korean workers were, for all practical purposes, never paid for their labor.
But Okamoto is quick to add that, legality aside, “the fundamental sin was the annexation of Korea, obliterating their national identities. We did not allow Koreans to use their own name, use their language. We even forced Shintoism on them to create second-class Japanese citizens.”
THE ABE STATEMENT: Coincidentally or not, the actions by Mitsubishi came just as the panel appointed by Abe to advise him on his 70th anniversary statement was about to make public its report.
For weeks, authoritative “leaks” circulated that indicated the panel was trying to corner a reluctant Abe into using the words “aggression” and “colonial rule,” while softening the explicit apology issued by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, and Prime Minister Juniichi Koizumi in 2005.
Prime Minister Abe is known to harbor a strict ideological aversion to use of those words.
Sure enough, on August 6, the advisory committee issued a report that criticized Japan’s “aggression” and “colonial rule” in the first half of the 20th century in what amounted to a “reckless war.” The report also thoroughly repudiated the notion popular among “revisionists” that Japan’s intention in the 1930s-1945 was to “liberate” the rest of Asia from Western colonial rule.
At this point, the proverbial diplomatic ball is in Shinzo Abe’s court. What will he say in his upcoming statement marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II? Abe deeply clings to the romantic illusion that annexation of Korea in 1910 was “legal,” and that the militarist rampage through China and Southeast Asia during the 1931-1945 period was somehow guided by noble intentions. It’s not surprising that Abe’s hero is his grandfather, the late Nobusuke Kishi, who was a key architect of Japan’s wartime policies.
Until recently, Abe seemed very unlikely to use the words “aggression” or “colonial rule,” terms he has never come close to uttering with respect to Japan’s calamitous wartime actions. Moreover, he seemed unlikely to communicate the genuineness of Yukio Okamoto’s apologies to ex-POWs, to exploited Chinese laborers, and for the annexation of Korea, or to capture to earnestness of his own advisory committee’s rejection of the revisionist notion that Japan was out to “liberate” the rest of Asia.
A lot is riding on Abe’s upcoming statement. Failure to heed the advice of his own advisory committee would likely lead to another round of icy diplomatic relations in Northeast Asia. And the United States, after having rolled out a red carpet for Abe during his late-April visit to Washington, would be in a weak position to disentangle itself from the regional political damage Abe could very well cause.
Okamoto: ‘Annexation of Korea Japan’s fundamental sin’
Yukio Okamoto is president of Okamoto Associates, Inc., providing strategic political and economic advice to major corporations. From 1968 to 1991 he was a career diplomat in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including postings in Paris and Washington, and responsibility for helping manage the day-to-day operations of the US-Japan security relationship.
Mr. Okamoto serves as a board member for several Japanese multinational firms, including Mitsubishi Materials. Well-versed in economic and government policy debates, he is a familiar figure both in Japan and within the United States government. He is currently the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mr. Okamoto has also served as a special advisor to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, Special Advisor on Iraq to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and chairman of Koizumi’s task force on foreign relations. In addition, he was a member of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s Study Group on Diplomacy.
Mr. Okamoto also served on the 16-person committee appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to advise him on the statement he will issue in August commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How did Mitsubishi Materials come to the decision to apologize to US POWs, and to compensate Chinese forced laborers? What were the discussions inside the company like?
OKAMOTO: Mitsubishi Materials was sued by American POWs some years back . We had to take up the issue quite seriously. Within the company, we conducted an extensive examination. We were sympathetic to the cause of the POWs, and we decided that we had to be very sincere, and not hide behind the official government position that all claims against the Japanese government or private companies had been settled by San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951.
We tried to communicate with the POWs, working through American intermediaries, in the hope of reaching an amicable settlement, including an apology.
But there were many elements to be considered. Many outsiders said many things, so our goal did not materialize. I can’t say much more about this, except that we consulted outsiders. The time was simply not mature enough for us to go ahead. These were not, of course, formal consultations, but they advised us.
Then, early last year, there was another approach, by a volunteer -- who was apparently working with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. She is Kinue Tokudome, director of the US-Japan Dialogue on POWs. We knew from our previous consideration and examination of the issue that we had to face it with sincerity. So this time, we decided to comply with the request to express an apology.
It took a while to arrange the meeting that occurred recently in Los Angeles.
DISPATCH JAPAN: When did Mitsubishi make the decision to extend this approach to Chinese laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies?
OKAMOTO: There has been an ongoing lawsuit with Chinese forced laborers. The issue is not the same as that with the American POWs. But there was a prevailing feeling that Mitsubishi as a private company used these laborers, and therefore had to apologize in the same manner. The difference is that the American POWs were no longer demanding financial compensation; they just wanted an apology. By contrast, the Chinese argue that our response is in essence an extension of the law suit, so we have been talking about the amount of reparation as well.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What was the response from the big business federation Keidanren, or individual Japanese companies? Have you received criticism? Or is there sentiment in favor of the actions you are taking?
OKAMOTO: We have not contacted Keidanren, or other companies. We have been doing this on our own. There is no official contact. All I know is through my friends, who work for a wide variety of companies, and they have been supportive.
DISPATCH JAPAN: But this could have major implications for other companies, right?
OKAMOTO: I don’t know. I have not spoken with executives from other companies that actually used POWs as forced laborers. The people to whom I have spoken represent a kind of Japanese common sense. But I do not know what the other firms who used POWs as laborers are going to decide. We should remember that Mitsubishi Materials succeeded Mitsubishi Mining, and is a different corporate entity. Nonetheless, we assumed what we thought was our responsibility. We remain a big company. On the other hand, a good number of the coal mining companies that used forced laborers are now quite small, as a result of the virtual death of coal mining in Japan. I don’t know what those firms will decide.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there any thought about creating a compensation fund for forced laborers involving the business community as a whole?
OKAMOTO: Not that I know of. I have not spoken with Keidanren. And we are not in a position to preach to other companies about steps they might take.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded? As you indicated, providing compensation to forced laborers is contrary to the longstanding government position that all claims against Japanese public and private entities were settled by the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
OKAMOTO: I think officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are sympathetic to us as a private firm having made the decision to apologize to American POWs. The MOFA is no longer saying that the issue was settled by the Peace Treaty, and that we have to be mindful of legal stability. They are no longer holding on to that position. They used to say that if a private company apologizes and pays compensation, it might rock the legal settlement reached at the official level. This was the position as of the Foreign Ministry until several years ago.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is this your perception through informal communication with Foreign Ministry officials, or do you regard this as a change in the official position?
OKAMOTO: I’ll have to check about the actual official MOFA stance. But I have many friends there, and I have informally been telling them about our plans. They perfectly understood, and they said that the government, of course, would not stand in our way.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about the Chinese government? Have you been communicating with officials in Beijing? Does this have broader diplomatic implications for Japan-China relations?
OKAMOTO: The company has been communicating with the Japanese foreign ministry. I would be surprised if they are not doing anything. I think they are at least consulting with their Chinese counterparts. But I do not know the content of the discussions at the government level.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about Korea? Are there discussions with Korean forced laborers, or is that more complicated because of their legal status as Japanese ‘citizens’ during the colonial period?
OKAMOTO: There are not any talks with Koreans. The Korean case is quite different. Koreans were mobilized as laborers, just as Japanese were mobilized. This was, of course, a very wrong policy on the part of the Japanese government of that time. It is Japan’s historical sin to have annexed Korea in 1910. But in a formal sense, they were technically ‘Japanese,’ so when the national mobilization law took effect in 1938, they were mobilized along with Japanese nationals, and put to work. They were given a choice: be conscripted into the armed forces to fight as a soldier, or, to work at a factory. There were many Koreans taken to factories. They were placed under the same labor conditions as Japanese. I do not assume the working conditions were not as harsh and cruel as those to which Chinese and POWS were subjected. But Korean workers were paid. Of course, whether they were paid in cash, or in the form of military money, it all amounted to trash after the war.
It amounted, in effect, to zero compensation. But all of the Japanese mobilized in a similar fashion had to accept that fate. But Korean nationals, of course, were not satisfied. This is essentially an issue of unpaid labor and abuse. Japan has to deal with this issue sincerely of course, but the legal nature is different.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you foresee any scenario for getting around that problem?
OKAMOTO: In the case of Korea, in addition to the substantial difference in the labor issue, the legal status is also completely different. Japan concluded with Korea the renunciation of the right-to-compensation treaty in 1965. The Koreans clearly and unambiguously settled the issue. So there is resentment within the Japanese government. The treaty binds the entire nation of Korea – not only the administrative branch, but the judicial branch as well – yet the Korean Supreme Court has ruled against the treaty. The Korean case is quite difficult, and at this point I certainly do not see how this will evolve.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You don’t have any ideas about how deadlock might be broken?
OKAMOTO: I don’t even know personally if we [Mitsubishi Materials] used Korean laborers. If they were used, it means they were placed under the same conditions as Japanese nationals. I feel sympathetic to POWs and Chinese laborers, since we have ample evidence that these people were subjected to inhuman conditions. But in the Korean case, I do not know to what extent, if any, we shoulder some blame.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The Mitsubishi Materials announcement comes shortly before Prime Minister Abe’s expected statement commemorating the August 15 end of the Pacific War 70 years ago. I don’t know if this is just coincidental. Does Mitsubishi’s decision concerning POWs and Chinese laborers have any implications for the prime minister’s statement?
OKAMOTO: I don’t know. You would have to ask Prime Minister Abe himself. The committee appointed by the prime minister to advise him on the statement has released its report. But the prime minister’s statement will be issued separate from our report. It is the 70th anniversary, and I do not deny that the sequence of events leading to a new reconciliation has been influencing Japanese society. Mr. Abe spoke to the US Congress, and referred to Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines [where Japanese forces terribly mistreated American POWs], expressing deep repentance.
In other words, Prime Minister Abe officially apologized to American nationals. Of course, that made our decision as a private company much easier. American POWs used by Mitsubishi were virtually all seized at Bataan and Corregidor. So, I think our apology and the prime minister’s statement are related.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Perhaps I am asking for your personal opinion. You referred to the annexation of Korea in 1910 as Japan’s “historical sin.” I am not sure Prime Minister Abe agrees with that.
OKAMOTO: I don’t think the prime minister defends the annexation of Korea. There is a national consensus that the annexation was wrong.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Really? A national consensus? I hear some politicians, writers, and even some historians regularly defend the annexation as “legal.”
OKAMOTO: You are not listening to honest people.
DISPATCH JAPAN: If there is a national consensus that annexation of Korea was wrong, why has Abe always avoided the word “colonization” with respect to Japan’s actions in Korea?
OKAMOTO: The prime minister has no specific resentment to using the four “key words” that journalists are calling for: colonialism, aggression, apology, and repentance. But he thinks we have done enough, in the past, using those words, having issued apologies more than 10 times via written statements by prime ministers. Rather than continue to be shackled by those terminologies, we will, by substance, aim for a new vision that will serve the interests of the nation. The tone will be forward-looking.
Whether or not those ‘key words’ are used is not the result of historical interpretation as to the rightness or wrongness of Japan’s past actions.
I teach at a university, and students often ask me for just how long Japan will have to keep apologizing. Certainly, for my generation, Japan’s mistaken policies were decisions made by our fathers and grandfathers, so we still are besieged by the sense of guilt. But my students are two generations younger, and the wartime policies were carried out by their great, or great-great grandfathers. These students bear no responsibility for our dark past. We have a moral obligation to keep apologizing to the victims of our past. But we also have a responsibility not to make these students immersed in pessimism.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will you be comfortable with a 70th anniversary statement from Prime Minister Abe that does not include the words “aggression” and “colonialism”?
OKAMOTO: I will simply say that those are not crucial points. I will make my judgment based on the overall tone of the prime minister’s statement.