Japan’s Mitsubishi Materials Corp., after its unprecedented move of apologizing to U.S. prisoners of war who were used as slave labor during World War II, now says it hopes to apologize to former British, Dutch and Australian World War II POWs who were used as slave labor. The company also said that it hopes to reach an amicable solution with Chinese forced laborers who have filed lawsuits against the company. Regrettably, there is no mention of any form of relief for Koreans who were taken away against their will to provide forced labor for wartime Japan.
At a ceremony held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on Sunday, a Mitsubishi Materials senior executive offered an apology for “the tragic events in our past” on behalf of Mitsubishi Mining Co., the company’s predecessor.
While the Japanese government has offered apologies to U.S. POWs used as forced laborers in 2009 and 2010, this was the first time for a private company to issue an official apology.
Mitsubishi Mining operated four sites when World War ended in 1945, holding 876 U.S. POWs. Twenty-seven Americans died in those camps. Very few of those American forced laborers survive today.
Accepting the apology on behalf of the American POWs was James Murphy, 94, who worked at Mitsubishi Mining’s Osarizawa Copper Mine after he was captured by the Japanese military during World War II. In accepting the apology, Murphy said, “This is a glorious day,” adding, “For 70 years we wanted this.”
While Murphy was gracious in accepting the Japanese company’s apology without bitterness, the Korean survivors of slave labor have not yet been given an opportunity to express such graciousness.
In Korea, from where the majority of the forced laborers were taken away against their will, the news of Mitsubishi Materials’ apology to the U.S. victims was received with some bitterness and renewed concern: bitterness that such an apology was not forthcoming for the Korean forced laborers and concern that the Japanese company may have been moved to apologize as part of a bigger scheme to win the goodwill of the American people without properly apologizing to the far greater numbers of victims in Asia.
While Mitsubishi Materials has apologized to its U.S. victims, the Japanese government, on the other hand, has launched a global public relations offensive arguing that Korean workers conscripted during wartime were not forced laborers. More than 37,000 Koreans are thought to have been taken away for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. Japan used forced labor, including captured enemy soldiers, to make up for the shortage of manpower during World War II.
In June, the Gwangju High Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., an affiliate of the Mitsubishi Group of which Mitsubishi Materials is also a member, to pay compensation to four Korean women forcibly conscripted as laborers during World War II. The court also ordered the company to pay a fifth plaintiff whose two deceased family members were also conscripted as laborers.
The lawsuits were made possible by a landmark Supreme Court decision in May 2012 that ruled that the right of former forced laborers and their families to seek withheld wages and compensation was not abrogated by the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty. The ruling allowed plaintiffs to seek damages in Korea.
While Mitsubishi Materials is ready to apologize to Allied POWs and reach an amicable settlement with Chinese forced laborers, a rough path is ahead for the Koreans conscripted to forced labor in Japan and elsewhere by the Japanese government, who are now seeking redress. The Abe administration is indulging in legalism, claiming that the Koreans conscripted were Japan’s colonial subjects, subject to the country’s 1938 general mobilization law, and thus cannot be considered forced laborers. Yet, the Korean government must do all it can to get justice for the Korean victims. The country failed them once when it allowed itself to be annexed by Japan; it should not fail them again.