TOKYO — The visit by six former American prisoners of war to Japan has opened the door for reconciliation and it should be opened more, said one of the six, Lester Tenney, who survived the 1942 Bataan Death March as a captive of the Imperial Japanese Army.
In an interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo on Sept. 12, Tenney, 90, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who now lives in California, suggested that much progress needs to be made on issues involving Japanese companies that used POWs for forced labor.
While the six ex-POWs and their family members are on an eight-day visit to Japan from Sept. 12 on the first trip sponsored by the Japanese government for former American POWs, “Many of my colleagues think it’s too little, too late,” Tenney said.
But “now the door is open, we have to take advantage of it,” he said, suggesting that more ex-POWs and their families could come to Japan from next year on as part of the new program in which they are participating.
The latest visit follows those previously hosted by Tokyo for former POWs from other Allied countries, including Britain and the Netherlands.
On the delay in inviting American POWs to visit Japan, Tenney speculated that given what the Americans did to Japan during and after World War II, including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese probably did not want to do anything for them.
Tenney is among some 75,000 POWs who were forced by the Japanese military to walk for days in tropical heat to a prison camp about 100 kilometers (more than 62 miles) away on the Bataan Peninsula on Luzon Island in the Philippines in 1942, following the surrender of U.S. troops.
He recounted the abuse he suffered on his arrival at the camp in April that year after he survived the death march, quoting a Japanese officer as telling him and other POWs, “You Americans are lower than dogs, you are cowards and you are going to be treated that way for the rest of your lives.”
After being captured in the Philippines, Tenney engaged in forced labor at the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, from 1943 to the end of World War II in 1945. There he was forced to work 12 hours a day and suffered physical abuse two to three times a week, he said.
“The Japanese workers in the coal mine…would beat me for no reason, just because I wasn’t working hard enough, didn’t work fast enough,” he said, noting that he was struck in the face with a hammer, picket and shovel.
“They knocked my teeth out, broke my nose,” he said, adding that these acts were “unnecessary and barbaric.”
Tenney, who has unsuccessfully sought damages from Mitsui at a U.S. court, is seeking apologies from Mitsui and other Japanese companies that used POWs as forced laborers.
“The private companies who should be doing something are staying quiet. All we want is that they say they were sorry,” he said. “We don’t want money. All we want is to have them acknowledge the fact that what they did during World War II was wrong.”
Tenney said he will never forget what happened and what he went through as a POW but is able to forgive because “I want to get on with my life.”
Noting that he has made friends with Japanese people since the end of the war, Tenney said that by learning to say, “I forgive,” he has managed to be a free man. “I’m not a captive anymore.”