Christian Caryl: What Japan Still Owes America

Roundup: Talking About History

[Christian Caryl is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy. His column, "Reality Check," appears weekly on]

Lester Tenney entered World War II as a strapping 21-year-old, weight 180 pounds. By the time he emerged from Japanese captivity in 1945, he was a shattered, emaciated cripple. His left arm and shoulder were partly paralyzed due to an accident in a coal mine where he'd been sent as a slave laborer. His overseers there -- civilian employees of the Mitsui Corp., not members of the Imperial Army -- had knocked out his teeth in repeated beatings with hammers and pickaxes. At war's end, he weighed in at 98 pounds. It took him a year in U.S. Army hospitals to regain something like a semblance of his old well-being.

Sixty-five years later, Tenney and his fellow ex-prisoners of war (POWs) -- the rapidly diminishing group of those who remain alive, that is -- are still awaiting the full fruits of victory. The Japanese companies that once abused Tenney and his fellow prisoners have never acknowledged responsibility for their crimes, let alone offered compensation or regrets of any kind. (The companies needed the POWs to compensate for a wartime labor shortage.) The Japanese government has only just begun to offer its regrets for what happened -- far too late for most of the veterans, but, still, something. Perhaps most depressingly of all, the U.S. government has spent years allowing the Japanese to get away with it -- a policy of complicity that has its roots in the two countries' complex postwar relationship. There are signs that this, too, may finally be changing. Hope never dies, as they say.

I was reminded of all this recently, when the story popped up again. Most Americans, I suspect, have never heard about this rather depressing tale -- which brings us to yet another set of culprits: the media. I must count myself among those responsible in this particular group. A few years ago I was the Tokyo bureau chief for one of the big American news magazines. I met Tenney in Japan and accompanied him as he spoke to Japanese school classes, and watched as he got his story out to the new generation. But I wasn't able to interest my editors in the story. It wasn't anything nefarious on their part. They just weren't terribly interested in Japan, and even less so in tales about Japan's bad behavior during the war. Surely that was well-trodden ground -- hadn't I ever seen The Bridge On the River Kwai?

I can't entirely blame them, I guess. Forget, for a moment, the fact that an extraordinary 40 percent of the Allied POWs in Japanese hands never came back. Forget the fact that those who survived suffered from the highest rates of "combat fatigue" -- what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder -- of all of America's World War II veterans. Forget the fact that selling the prisoners to some 60 different Japanese companies represented a crass violation of the laws of war -- and that the way they were treated while working for the companies contravened the Imperial Army's own guidelines. Forget the fact that Chinese and Korean prisoners and forced laborers are still pressing (unsuccessfully) to have their claims recognized by Japanese courts. It was all a long time ago.

There's another problem. This happens to be one of those stories that come wrapped in the myriad legal and political subtleties that tend to accompany explorations of sins committed by governments in the past. In this case, for example, you have to do a bit of explaining about the peculiar history of the U.S.-Japan alliance...

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