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Mitsubishi apologizes for using American WWII POWs as forced labor

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Mariko Lochridge/ Reuters

(Read caption) Yukio Okamoto, Outside Board Member of Mitsubishi Materials and former Special Advisor to Japan's Prime Minister, left, and Hikaru Kimura, Senior Executive Officer Mitsubishi Materials, offer an apology as they hold hands with 94-year-old US prisoner of war, James Murphy, at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Sunday, July 19, 2015. Construction company Mitsubishi Materials Corp became the first major Japanese company to apologize for using captured American soldiers as slave laborers during World War Two.

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With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II coming in August, Mitsubishi gave a landmark apology for using American prisoners of war as slave labor in company mines.

At the Simon Wiesenthal Center headquarters in Los Angeles, an executive from Mitsubishi Materials Corp. made the first apology Sunday on behalf of a Japanese private company for its wartime atrocities against American prisoners. An official apology about the treatment of American POWs came from the Japanese government five years ago.

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“Today we apologize remorsefully for the tragic events in our past,” Mitsubishi Materials Senior Executive Officer Hikaru Kimura said through a translator.

Around 12,000 American prisoners of war were put to work by the Japanese government and private companies during the war and were often subject to torture, food deprivation, and horrendous working conditions.  

In all, an estimated 1,100 US POWs who were put into forced labor died during the war.

The Mitsubishi Mining Group, a precursor to the modern corporation, operated four mines that used hundreds of Americans for forced labor. A search for survivors of the mines found two people still living. Only one, 94-year-old James Murphy, was able to make the trip to the ceremony.  

Mr. Murphy recounted the the deplorable conditions he was forced to work under at Mitsubishi's Osarizawa Copper Mine, but said he accepted and was appreciative of the long-awaited apology.

"I've listened very carefully to Mr. Kimura's statement of apology and found it very, very sincere, humble and revealing, and this happens to be the first time that we've heard those words and they really touch you at the heart," Murphy said.

“For 70 years since the war ended, the prisoners of war who worked for these Japanese companies have asked for something very simple, an apology,” he told Al Jazeera.

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The company made no mention of financial compensation for its actions during the ceremony. Americans were not allowed to sue as part of the terms of the treaty. Mitsubushi has faced lawsuits filed by South Korean and Chinese nationals over its use of forced labor.

Mitsubishi’s apology comes in the midst of the current debate over Japanese historical legacy, especially with regards to war crimes during WWII.

Earlier this year, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech to US lawmakers giving “eternal condolences” for the great loss of life that came from the war. However, he sidestepped any mention of specific atrocities. And this year has seen a renewed controversy surrounding the sexual trafficking of Chinese and South Korean women.

Nationalist politicians, including members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, have disputed that women were forced into prostitution or that the government was involved in the activity.

Last year, the left-leaning Asahi newspaper was forced to retract exposés about “comfort women” because of an unreliable source. A class action lawsuit involving more than 10,000 people was filed against the newspaper for allegedly damaging “Japanese people’s personal rights and honor.”

An open letter published in May and signed by 187 international scholars urged the Japanese government to officially admit and apologize for the trafficking of “comfort women.”

“The process of acknowledging past wrongs strengthens a democratic society and fosters cooperation among nations,” the letter reads. “Since the equal rights and dignity of women lie at the core of the ‘comfort women’ issue, its resolution would be a historic step toward the equality of women and men in Japan, East Asia and the world.”