Sunday, April 21, 2024

History’s Shadow on Japanese Prime Minister’s U.S. Visit

Robinette 2nd from left
This week’s Japan-Philippines-U.S. trilateral summit comes alongside the 82nd anniversary of the Bataan Death March. 

By Patrick Regan and Mindy Kotler Smith

Patrick Regan is a member of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society (ADBC-MS) and the grandson of U.S. Army Air Corps Tech. Sgt. Donald C. Regan, who survived the Bataan Death March and 41 months as a POW of the Japanese, including two years at Hirohata Camp 12-B working for Nippon Steel.

Mindy Kotler Smith is also a member of the ADBC-MS and great niece of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineer Fletcher Wood, who survived the siege of Corregidor but died in a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. She is the editor of this blog.

The Diplomat, April 09, 2024

Few weeks are as historic in the shared history of Japan, the Philippines, and the United States as this one. The focus this week will be on these countries’ three leaders — Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. — and their summit in Washington. But the anniversaries of Imperial Japan’s worst war crimes this week cast a shadow over their meetings.

More than 80 years later, those acts remain largely forgotten even though they underlie one of the key topics Kishida is expected to raise at his summit with Biden: Nippon Steel’s attempt to acquire U.S. Steel.

By acknowledging Japan and Nippon Steel’s role in the mistreatment of prisoners of war (POWs) during World War II, Kishida has an opportunity to not only do the right thing but also connect in a meaningful way with Biden and Marcos, both of whom have direct family ties to those atrocities.

The Bataan Death March

Eighty-two years ago, on April 9, 1942, the fighting on the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula came to an end. For four months, American and Filipino troops had done what no one in the Pacific could do — halt Imperial Japan’s sweep across Asia. Through persistence and ingenuity, without air or naval support, they mounted an unexpectedly stiff resistance against the invaders.

Resupply and reinforcements were not coming, though, and the troops on Bataan were starving and out of ammunition. Faced with a certain massacre, the U.S. commanding general, Edward P. King, disobeyed orders and surrendered his men. But what followed was worse than combat.

On the first day of the surrender, Japanese troops looted the personal possessions of their prisoners, murdered those found with Japanese money, bayonetted to death the sick, and raped the one American nurse they could find.

The next day, April 10, the men were organized in groups of 100 and force-marched up the peninsula in the sweltering tropical heat. They were denied water, food, and medicine. Japanese officers beheaded men at will. The guards killed laggards and those they believed disrespectful. Japanese military vehicles crushed men into the road beneath them, while their occupants laughed. The prisoners’ agonizing 65-mile trek lasted anywhere from four days to two weeks.

What became known as the infamous Bataan Death March was only part of a 100-mile journey to an improvised POW camp. The next segment was 28 miles by rail where the men were packed, standing, in metal boxcars. Many died from heat exhaustion, dysentery, suffocation, or malaria. Survivors then stumbled the next several miles to the unfinished barracks of Camp O’Donnell. The camp contained only two water spigots for the more 55,000 men. In the first month, thousands died of disease and despair.

Among those surviving the march and the first months of imprisonment was a distant cousin of Biden, John Robinette, a Port Clinton, Ohio, soldier with Company C of the 192nd Provisional Tank Battalion. Months before, he had participated in America’s first winning tank battle of WWII. Robinette died of beriberi that November.

Also surviving the march was Marcos’ father and namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who was an officer with the Philippine Army. Starting in June 1942, the Japanese, to reduce deaths and to reward collaboration, began to release Filipino prisoners of war. Ferdinand was released in August.

Thus, when Kishida sits down with his American and Filipino counterparts for a trilateral summit on April 11, he will face two leaders with direct ties to the Bataan Death March. It will not be his first time in that setting.

In October 2013, then-Foreign Minister Kishida met with two Bataan Death March survivors and one widow. They were part of a visiting delegation of American former prisoners of war of Japan seeking understanding and reconciliation from their former captors. Kishida expressed deep remorse for their suffering.

Despite this intimate history, it is reported that the Japanese prime minister will not express his country’s remorse over World War II in his speech at the U.S. Congress on April 11. Foreign Ministry officials claim Japan’s position on the war “has been settled to some extent” and Kishida “will not touch on it in the speech.”

Surviving as a Prisoner of Japan

April 11 is remembered in the Philippines as the anniversary of the Pantingan River Massacre. Lost and starving Filipino and American officers of the 91st Philippine Army Division missed the April 9 surrender deadline. The commander of Japan’s 65th Brigade, to whom they eventually surrendered, reprimanded the 400 men for being late. He then ordered his officers to behead the defenseless prisoners and directed his enlisted men to bayonet to death those missed by the swords. The slaughter reportedly took two hours.

Surviving imprisonment and hard labor in the Philippines was just the beginning for those who surrendered on Bataan. Starting in August 1942, the Japanese began shipping American and European prisoners from the Philippines to Japan to be used as slave laborers by national corporations. The prisoners were told if they did not work, they would not eat.

One of those corporations was Nippon Steel.

Nippon Steel

In his visit this week, Kishida will present Nippon Steel as the face of Japan. His message will be that the company, like Japan, should be viewed as a trusted ally that will enhance security cooperation by improving the U.S. industrial base. Nowhere will he mention the company’s unfinished business from the war.

Nippon Steel, like all major Japanese wartime corporations, requisitioned prisoner-of-war labor and maintained prisoner labor camps. The firm was so vital to Japanese war production that one of its steel mills was to be a target of an atomic bomb. At its mines, mills, and railyards, Nippon Steel used 6,000 Allied prisoners of war. At least 2,000 were American, most of whom were survivors of the conquest of the Philippines that began with the fall of Bataan.

At Nippon Steel facilities, the POWs were starved, abused, and denied adequate medical care. Company employees willfully beat the POWs working alongside them. Barracks were unheated, infested with vermin, and overcrowded. Ten percent of the prisoners died.

Nippon Steel still refuses to acknowledge that Americans suffered in forced service to the company during World War II. That history is nowhere to be found on Nippon Steel’s website, which devotes more than 1,000 words to a timeline of the company’s heritage. The timeline, which goes back to 1908, ignores the 1940s entirely.

Nippon Steel’s exploitation of POW labor during the war is also ignored at two of its functioning steel mills that were designated in 2015 as UNESCO World Industrial Heritage sites. Despite a UNESCO reprimand, the Japanese government refuses to provide “the full history” of these sites by explaining how POWs helped maintain wartime production.

Nippon Steel has invested in a slew of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to make the case for the company’s purchase of U.S. Steel. The prime minister is supposed to build on their imagery of Nippon Steel as a responsible, technologically sophisticated corporation sensitive to American interests. Ignored is that the company has long failed at its most basic expression of respect for American workers. It has never acknowledged or apologized for its mistreatment of American “laborers.”

The Opportunity

Kishida declared last year at the U.N. that he wanted to emphasize “human dignity” in international cooperation. Here is his chance. He can suggest that Nippon Steel do something more meaningful with its efforts to gain political support for the deal than to emphasize that it is good business.

There is precedent for such a move. In 2015, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation became the first and only Japanese company to apologize and present an atonement payment for using American slave labor during the war. The admission was hailed at the time as an important step in moving Japanese industry out of the shadow of its wartime atrocities, although no other Japanese companies have done the same.

Nippon Steel now has a rare opportunity to make a statement similar to Mitsubishi’s. In the face of recent government leaders reframing the Japanese purely as victims during World War II and to rewrite history downplaying the plight of those who suffered under Japan’s rampage across the Pacific, this would be a timely trust-building corporate and national move.

In addition to acknowledgement and an apology, Nippon Steel, along with the Japanese government, would ideally devote resources annually to educational efforts both in Japan and the U.S. to make the history of American POWs in Japan more widely known. There should be more than a few plaques at steel plants. Virtual visits to former POW camps, digitization of records, exchange programs for families, and a national memorial would be appropriate. Both Japan and Nippon Steel have to show they are serious.

These efforts are especially important now, nearly 80 years since the end of the war, as the living memory of wartime events slips away.

It’s too late now for the thousands of Americans who slaved away for Nippon Steel to get the apology and recognition they deserve. That includes the father of the famed Smothers Brothers, the grandfather of California Governor Gavin Newsom, and Olympian Louis Zamperini, whose remarkable story of survival was depicted in the book and movie “Unbroken.”

But it’s not too late for Nippon Steel, with Kishida’s encouragement, to face its past directly so it can move on to its future, potentially with U.S. Steel, with some measure of honor and trust.