Japanese firm apologizes to forced laborers in U.S.

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Japanese firm apologizes to forced laborers in U.S.

For the first time, a Japanese corporation issued an apology to American prisoners of war who were forced into slave labor in mines during World War II at a ceremony held in Los Angeles on Sunday.

However, the apology by Mitsubishi Materials, the successor to Mitsubishi Mining, lauded as a precedent-setting move, made no mention of tens of thousands of forced laborers from countries like Korea, China, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

In a ceremony at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, executives of Mitsubishi Materials issued an apology to a 94-year-old World War II veteran, James Murphy, who had been forced to work in a Mitsubishi copper mine as a prisoner of war.

Hikaru Kimura, a senior executive from Mitsubishi Materials, said, “As the company that succeeded Mitsubishi Mining, we cannot help feeling a deep sense of ethical responsibility for this past tragedy.”

The company offered a “remorseful apology” to around 900 American prisoners of war, including Murphy, who were “subjected to severe hardship” while forced to work in Mitsubishi mines and industrial plants.

“This is a glorious day, for one thing, because for 70 years, we wanted such action,” said Murphy, who is from Santa Maria, California. He received the apology on behalf of other living American prisoners of war forced to work in Japanese facilities. Many others could not be located or were too old or not fit to travel. Relatives of former prisoners of war attended the ceremony as well.

The Japanese government issued a formal apology to American prisoners of war in 2009 and again in 2010.

The place and timing of the apology was also significant. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a non-governmental organization that protects the rights of Holocaust survivors, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.

The surrender also led to Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

In response to reporters’ questions afterward, Kimura said that Mitsubishi may review an apology to other countries but said he would refrain from speaking about Korea and China because there are ongoing compensation lawsuits involving conscripted workers from those countries.

Korean analysts pointed out that Mitsubishi’s apology was commendable as it recognized that Japan forced its prisoners into slave labor, a stance the Japanese government has contradicted. But they said the company should have gone one step further to include all forced laborers in its apology.

“U.S. POW groups have continuously pressured Japanese companies to issue an apology, and this appears to be Mitsubishi Materials accepting that call,” Japan expert Nam Sang-gu, researcher at the Northeast Asia History Foundation, said, “taking into account that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of [World War II].

“The biggest issue is that the apology was limited to just the United States. By specifying American POWs, that lessened its significance,” he continued. “But at the least, Mitsubishi showed that it is capable of reflecting and apologizing.”

He pointed out that the Japanese government recently backpedaled on wording used in Unesco world heritage documents accepted earlier this month by the World Heritage Committee about Koreans being “forced to work” in Japanese Meiji-era industrial sites.

“But Mitsubishi acknowledged that the prisoners were forced into labor, and in this aspect, while it would be desirable for Mitsubishi to go one step further and deal with the reparation and compensation issue, regardless, it has shown its ability to recognize historical facts.”

Nam said the apology might not have been desired by the Shinzo Abe government.

“As a Japanese corporation active in the United States, Mitsubishi would have taken into consideration that an apology would improve the company’s image and be helpful in their business.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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