Thursday, February 02, 2012

Japanese Corporate Use of U.S. POWs as Slave Labor

American POWs at Yawata Steel Mill
 part of  Nippon Steel in Fukuoka
On 15 December 2011, Representative Russ Carnahan (D-MO) submitted a Statement for the Record to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Hearing on California's High-Speed Rail Plan on behalf of Mr. Joseph A. Vater, Jr. who is President of the Descendants Group, an Auxiliary of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.

Congressman Carnahan visited Corregidor last year and learned first hand of the historic battle of the Philippines and how its American defenders ended up as POWs facing over three years of unimaginable hell. Earl Szwabo, a survivor of the battle of Corregidor and member of the first POW trip to Japan, is one of Mr. Carnahan's constituents.

Below is Mr. Vater's testimony where he outlines how most of the Japanese companies that plan to bid on California's and other American high-speed rail projects were major users of American POW slave labor. He suggests that it is time for these companies to offer their apologies and make amends for this gross violation of human rights and the Geneva Convention.

Japanese Corporate Use of U.S. POWs as Slave Labor

Mr. Chairman, I am President of the Descendants Group, an Auxiliary of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, Inc. (ADBC). The American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor was founded in 1946 and represented the surviving prisoners of war of Japan and their families. I would like to call your and the Committee’s attention to the fact that many of the Japanese companies that intend to bid on California’s High-Speed Rail contracts profited from the use of American and Allied (POW) slave labor in the most brutal of conditions during World War II.

These companies, unlike those in Germany, Austria, and France, have never acknowledged nor apologized for this gross violation of human rights and breach of the Third Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs. It is a concern to me and other members of the Descendants Group that taxpayer dollars may go to Japanese corporations that still do not respect the American veterans they once enslaved.

My father, Joseph A. Vater, was one of these men.

After fighting in and surviving the Battle for the Philippines he was taken prisoner by Japan in May 1942 on Corregidor. He was held months in a fetid POW camp where thousands died. He was then shipped to Mukden, China (today's Shenyang) in October 1942 on Mitsubishi's Tottori Maru via Formosa and Korea. My father became a slave laborer at MKK factory (Manshu Kosaku Kikai, possibly Manchuria Mitsubishi Machine Tool Company, Ltd.), working as a machinist. He still carries many scars and continues to have frightening nightmares that remind him on a daily basis of his forced labor.

There was a broad government program in which over 60 private Japanese corporations requested, paid for, and effectively enslaved POWs in order to maintain wartime industrial production. Tens of thousands of Allied POWs endured abuses at the hands of the employees of these companies that were comparable to, and sometimes worse than, that inflicted upon them by the Japanese military. As a result, more than a 1,000 American POWs (over 3,500 Allied POWs) died on the main islands of Japan alone. Those who survived found themselves with permanent physical or mental damage.

The POW slave laborers of Japan were subjected to starvation rations, minimal medical treatment, constant physical abuse, summary punishment, murder, and other degradations. The death rate of Americans captured by the Japanese and who died as prisoners of war was nearly 40 percent, as compared to a little over one percent held in German stalags.

Nearly all of the Japanese companies that want to bring High-Speed Rail to California used POW slave labor. Many of these corporations boast over 100 years of continuous operation spanning three centuries. Many utilized labor from multiple POW camps for their mines, factories, foundries, and docks. Some of the camps were in Japan’s occupied territories. Current research finds the number of camps associated with some of the Japanese companies bidding on California contracts as follows: Mitsui-9; Mitsubishi-5, Hitachi-7, Kawasaki-2, Sumitomo-5, and Nippon Sharyo-2.

None of these companies has acknowledged their involvement in POW forced labor and maltreatment, much less apologized for it. That is in stark contrast to German and French bidders for the High-Speed Rail projects, both of which have not only apologized for their war crimes during WWII, but also committed themselves to supporting projects of remembrance and reconciliation.

Last year, for the first time, the Government of Japan offered its apology and established a visitation program (modeled on a longstanding Japanese program for POWs of other allied nations) for American former prisoners of war of Imperial Japan.

It is time for Japan’s private companies to follow their government’s lead and offer their own apologies. Further, commitment to this apology can be demonstrated through the establishment of a foundation for the remembrance of the POW experience in the Pacific.

To date, the two consortia headed by Japan’s leading passenger rail firms, JR East and JR Central, which are planning to bid on American High-Speed Rail projects, have been silent. As rail operators both companies’ forbearers were complicit in POW abuses; both have roots deep in Japan’s wartime government Railway Ministry.

JR East’s antecedent transported prisoners to 46 POW camps including the infamous Ofuna Interrogation Center where American Naval officers were routinely tortured to death. JR Central’s predecessor transported prisoners to 12 POW camps, including the ones supplying workers to Nippon Sharyo. Now owned by JR Central, Nippon Sharyo made the engines used on the Thai-Burma Death Railway (one of which sits at the entrance of the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine).

That the transportation of POWs to “death-by-work” camps and widespread forced labor constitute war crimes is self-evident. Yet, the Japanese companies involved have refused to publicly acknowledge this history. Their counterparts in the European Axis countries, by contrast, have apologized and atoned for similar wrongdoing.

In 2000, the German government and industrial sector established and funded in equal measure the “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future” Foundation. Among the fund’s continuing objectives are “anchoring the history of forced labour” in European memory, “fostering commitment to democracy and human rights through history learning,” and “engendering respect for the life histories of those persecuted.”

Over the past three years, the former commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor has written three times to Japan’s premier business organization, Keidanren, to which most companies that enslaved American POWs belong, asking that it apologize on behalf of its members to the American POWs. Keidanren’s corporate responsibility charter states a commitment to “respect human rights” and to “conduct business in a socially responsible manner.” Keidanren has never replied. Further, it refused to meet in with any of the visiting POWs who were guests of the Japanese government in the fall of 2010 and 2011.

For both business and moral reasons, JR East, JR Central and the other Japanese companies that profited from the forced labor of POWs and others now have a chance—and incentives—to right past wrongs. The American POWs do not seek compensation. Justice for my father and his fellow prisoners is a public apology and a meaningful program of visitation, dialogue, memory, and research on the American POW experience in Imperial Japan.

I and other members of the Descendants Group sincerely hope that the State of California will advise these Japanese companies to promptly acknowledge their involvement in wartime forced labor and offer an apology to the American POWs.

These veterans of America’s greatest generation should not be forgotten and Japan’s corporations should no longer be allowed to forget.

Mostly, we ask them to respect these veterans’ dignity and to acknowledge their sacrifices for peace in Asia.

After doing so, these Japanese companies can join in the bidding on California’s High-Speed Rail contracts as honorable, socially responsible companies.

*Yes, there were Black Americans who were POWs of Japan. The POWs above were from the USS Grenadier the only submarine crew that did not go down with their boat. Thomas James Trigg was a Mess Attendant First Class. We will do a post shortly on the Black American POWs of Japan. 


  1. Hello,

    I'm writing a book (based on a true story) and I believe the African American POW is the actual person who was involved in one of the scenes. I can't tell what his name is and am searching for more information. My information is that he escaped at some point. Appreciate any input you have. Thank you.


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