Michael A. Mariant / The Associated Press

Mitsubishi apologizes for using US troops as forced labor in WWII

Apology to veterans believed to be the first by a Japanese company for using prisoners of war as forced labor

A major Japanese corporation offered a landmark apology Sunday for using U.S. prisoners of war for forced labor during World War II, nearly 70 years after the end of the war.

A senior executive of the Mitsubishi Materials corp. offered the apology to former POWs — including 94-year-old James Murphy of Santa Maria, California — during a ceremony Sunday at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Hikaru Kimura, a senior executive officer for the Mitsubishi Materials Corp., said through an interpreter that the company offered a "most remorseful apology" to the about 900 POWs who suffered "harsh, severe hardships" while forced to work in Mitsubishi mines and industrial plants.

Murphy, who toiled in Mitsubishi copper mines and is one of the few left alive to accept such an apology, called it sincere, humble and revealing.

"This is a glorious day," said Murphy, who stood tall and slender and looked much younger than his 94 years. "For 70 years, we wanted this."

Other POWs subjected to forced labor sat in the audience along with many members of Murphy's family.

Stanley Gibson, whose late father worked alongside Murphy in the mines, flew from Scotland to Los Angeles for the ceremony to represent his family after hearing about it in news reports just a few days earlier. On the stage was a photo of the two men being liberated from their captors.

The ceremony was preceded by a private apology that ended with a long, deep bow from the Mitsubishi representatives. "I entered the room with a heavy heart, seeking forgiveness," said Yukio Okamoto, an outside board member for Mitsubishi.

Murphy stressed that the apology was not half-hearted, qualified or self-aggrandizing for Mitsubishi. He said the apology "admits to wrongdoing, makes sincere statement showing deep remorse," and offers assurances that the wrongs will never be repeated.

"I know that we can trust those words," he said.

Others, including one Mitsubishi representative, struck a sadder tone over how long the apology took. "We also have to apologize for not apologizing earlier," Okamoto said.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the center whose primary focus in the past has been Holocaust education, said he believes the move is unprecedented.

"As far as I know, this is a piece of history," Cooper said recently. "It's the first time a major Japanese company has ever made such a gesture. We hope this will spur other companies to join in and do the same."

He also declined to discuss whether the apology would be echoed by other companies that benefited from the labor of captured troops. 

Jan Thompson, an academic from Southern Illinois University whose father was a POW, said that it took a lot of courage for Mitsubishi to come forward, especially as most of its former executives had died, for what became an "extraordinary moment in history."

"Mr. Kimura was very sincere, he was honest and it was very clear it was coming from his heart. It was so heartfelt, at least half of the room was crying. It was an extraordinary moment in history but I wish that more [prisoners] were still alive," Thompson said.

Japan's government issued a formal apology to American POWs in 2009 and again in 2010. But the dwindling ranks of POWs used as slaves at mines and industrial plants have so far had little luck in getting apologies from the corporations who used them, sometimes in brutal conditions.

Some 12,000 American prisoners were shipped to Japan and forced to work at more than 50 sites to support imperial Japan's war effort, and about 10 percent died, according to Kinue Tokudome, the director of the U.S.-Japan Dialogue on POWs, who has spearheaded the lobbying effort for companies to apologize.

Six prisoner-of-war camps in Japan were linked to the Mitsubishi conglomerate during the war, and they held 2,041 prisoners, more than 1,000 of whom were American, according to nonprofit research center Asia Policy Point.

Mitsubishi Materials' predecessor ran four sites that at the time of liberation in 1945 held about 876 American prisoners of war. Twenty-seven Americans died in those camps, Asia Policy Point said.

The apology Sunday comes amid a lawsuit in which the descendants of hundreds of Chinese men forced to work in wartime Japan are seeking millions of dollars in compensation from a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp. and a joint venture between the Mitsubishi Corp. and the Mitsubishi Materials Corp.

Kimura declined to discuss the lawsuit. 

Al Jazeera with wire services

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