One year after media reports that Aso Mining used 300 Allied prisoners of war for forced labor in 1945, Foreign Minister Aso Taro is refusing to confirm that POWs dug coal for his family’s company — and even challenging reporters to produce evidence.
That is not hard to do. Records produced by both Aso Mining and the Japanese government clearly show that POWs toiled at the Aso Yoshikuma mine in Fukuoka Prefecture.
But the Foreign Ministry’s provocative stance raises questions about Japan’s commitment to historical reconciliation even with current Western allies. It also highlights the growing tendency of the Japanese state to contest criticism of the nation’s wartime past, as the government moves to revise the no-war clause of Japan’s constitution and promote patriotic education.
Last year’s flurry of media coverage reflected the nationalities of the World War II prisoners involved: 197 Australian, 101 British and two Dutch.
Newspaper stories in The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald were supplemented by newscasts by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. British readers were informed by The Guardian, The Observer, The Times and The Telegraph. Survivors of forced labor at the Aso Yoshikuma coal mine were tracked down and interviewed.
An 87-year-old Australian sent a personal letter to Foreign Minister Aso, according to The Japan Times. The former POW received no reply to his request for an apology and compensation for his unpaid work for Aso Mining Co.
Japanese-language media have treated the existence of the Aso Yoshikuma labor camp, formally known as Fukuoka POW Branch Camp 26, as a virtual taboo. Aso Taro has avoided all public comment on the matter.
But when a New York Times reporter mentioned forced labor at Aso Mining in an article last November, the Foreign Ministry issued a startling public rebuttal. According to the website of the Consulate-General of Japan in New York:
“The Government of Japan is not in a position to comment on employment forms and conditions of a private company, Aso Mining, at that time. However, our government has not received any information the company has used forced laborers. It is totally unreasonable to make this kind of judgmental description without presenting any evidence.”
This attitude was criticized by Linda Goetz Holmes, a Pacific War historian and author of a book on POW forced labor called Unjust Enrichment. Proof that Aso Mining exploited prisoner labor originated with the Japanese government in the immediate postwar period, she noted.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is continuing the disturbing Japanese government trend of being unwilling to search its own archives for the corroborating evidence of POW slave labor,” Holmes said. “Instead, it is challenging others to produce such records.”
On Aug. 19, 1945, the imperial Japanese government’s Committee to Negotiate Surrender delivered to U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, by hand in Manila, a list of prison camps in Japan and the names of private companies using Allied POWs. The Fukuoka section of the document shows the Camp 26 workforce was assigned to Aso’s Yoshikuma colliery. This POW camp list can be found today in the MacArthur Memorial Archives in Virginia (Record Group 4, Box 23).
“If copies of that document exist in the MacArthur Memorial Archives, they surely exist in Japanese archives as well,” said Holmes, who served as a history adviser to the Japanese Imperial Records Interagency Working Group (IWG). Affiliated with the U.S. National Archives, the IWG recently concluded its work and issued a 1,700-page guide called Researching Japanese War Crimes.
Throughout the postwar period Japanese corporations have engaged in “multi-pronged denials” of forced labor, according to Holmes. She said companies tore down and bulldozed over all traces of POW barracks “as fast as they were able,” and then falsely told American inspectors they had destroyed all records at the direction of the Japanese government.
“In fact,” Holmes said, “each company retained complete lists and often photographs of each POW, along with information such as his country of origin and serial number.”
1946 ASO REPORT
But in the aftermath of the nation’s unconditional surrender, the Japanese government and industry were in no position to completely stonewall the victorious Allies. Occupation authorities soon ordered the Japanese government to formally document the massive forced labor enterprise, and the worst atrocities against POWs would be vigorously prosecuted at war crimes tribunals.
Japanese authorities, in turn, directed each company involved to prepare written responses to a set list of questions about POW working and living conditions. Individual company reports were submitted to the Japanese government, which compiled them and later submitted a comprehensive “master report” to American military investigators in Tokyo.
(Also in 1945-46, Japan’s Foreign Ministry similarly directed companies to submit extensive records concerning forced labor in Japan by Chinese nationals, many of them undeclared prisoners of war. War crimes against Chinese forced laborers were for the most part not prosecuted, however. The Japanese government suppressed the so-called Foreign Ministry Report and lied to the Diet about its existence, which was finally confirmed in 1993. Tokyo today describes the Chinese labor program as “half-forced.”)
On Jan. 24, 1946, Aso Mining submitted a 16-page report detailing conditions at Yoshikuma to the Japanese government’s POW Information Bureau, using company stationery and attaching an English translation.
This Aso company report claims the Westerners were fed, clothed and housed better than Aso’s Japanese workers and Korean labor conscripts. On paper at least, POWs received a “main food” of 715 grams per day (compared to 570 grams or less for other workers) and were “satisfied with the completeness of the mess provisions.”
Aso Mining also wrote that 150 of the healthiest Camp 26 prisoners were utilized in the third sector of the Yoshikuma mine. The remainder performed farm work and camp tasks like cooking and digging bomb shelters. The POWs were said to have been the best farmers, but only half as efficient as Japanese or Koreans in the coal pits.
The Aso report includes the company’s Feb. 22, 1945, letter to the Japan War Ministry requesting use of 300 Allied prisoners for one year. Camp 26 opened on May 10, fulfilling the Aso request. The company provided an itemized list of camp construction expenses totaling 211,426 yen.
These key records produced by Aso Mining in January 1946 can be viewed in Maryland at the U.S. National Archives (Record Group 331, Box 927).
The U.S. National Archives also retain the comprehensive Camp Management Report, submitted to American war crimes investigators by the Japan POW Information Bureau on June 7, 1946. It further confirms the “Aso Mining Industry Company” utilized the Camp 26 prisoners in the adjacent Yoshikuma coal mine.
Arthur Gigger, now 86 and living in South Australia, recalled 12-hour shifts and “pretty primitive conditions” deep in the Aso mine. He arrived at Camp 26 after American firebombing destroyed the Kobe shipyard where he had worked since late 1942. He became a POW when Singapore fell to Japanese forces.
“The food was certainly meager, but clothing was our biggest problem,” Gigger said. “We were down to absolute tatters by the end of the war. I don’t think we’d have seen it through another winter.” The Aso-compiled records, however, say the prisoners’ clothing was of superior quality.
Gigger disputed other aspects of Aso Mining’s description of life at Camp 26. While the company reported that prisoners could “take a rest in the recreation room,” Gigger insisted “there was no such thing.”
The company report also claims that, shortly after Japan’s surrender, prisoners thanked Aso officials for their kind treatment by giving them gifts. “That’s all bull,” Gigger said with a laugh. “Absolute rubbish.”
Despite its often self-exculpatory nature, such evidence of forced labor at Aso Mining exists in the national archives of other Allied countries — and in Japan. Produced by American Occupation staff based on Japanese company reports, a copy of the “Roster of Deceased Allied POWs in Japan Proper” resides at the National Diet Library in Tokyo.
The roster records the names of the two Australian soldiers who died at Aso Yoshikuma: John Watson and Leslie Edgar George Wilkie. It is accessible online at the website of the POW Research Network Japan, run by Japanese citizens working to clarify the historical record. The remains of Watson and Wilkie are interred at the Commonwealth War Cemetery near Yokohama.
Another U.S. government document in the National Diet Library is Report No. 174, issued by the Investigation Division of GHQ’s Legal Section on Feb. 1, 1946.
This report summarizes a two-day U.S. Army inspection of the Camp 26 site, referring to the statement of an Aso company official as “Exhibit One.” The document also lists the names and ranks of Japanese Army personnel who guarded the POWs when they were not in Aso Mining’s custody. All camp records were burned in late September 1945, it notes.
While there were no charges of war crimes involving Camp 26, the paper trail for prisoner labor at Yoshikuma is clearly extensive. A 1982 book published by Japan’s National Defense Academy also states that the camp’s prisoners worked for Aso Mining.
Yet at the peak of overseas media coverage of the Aso-POW connection last July, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson appeared to dispute wartime events. The ministry official lashed out during a press conference at “malicious news reports that contained statements contrary to facts and nevertheless have aroused a lot of debate precisely because they were very farfetched.”
Japan’s prime minister, Abe Shinzo, provoked international controversy more recently by doubting the evidence of government or military coercion in Japan’s wartime system of military sexual slavery. A non-binding resolution debated by the U.S. Congress in spring 2007 calls on the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge and apologize for” the comfort women system — and to refute revisionists who deny the historical reality.
That could include Foreign Minister Aso, who last February described the congressional resolution as “not based on objective facts.” Aso, 66, finished second to Abe in last year’s contest for prime minister and still aspires to the nation’s top post.
Founded in 1872, the family firm had ceased mining and was known as Aso Cement when Aso Taro headed it in the 1970s. It is called Aso Group today and is run by Aso’s younger brother. Few traces of the Yoshikuma mine remain, although the Aso Iizuka Golf Club is located near the former site.
Dozens of compensation lawsuits were filed over the past decade against Japanese corporations that profited from forced labor during WWII. All have now failed. Courts in Japan, the United States and elsewhere have held that the San Francisco Peace Treaty and other postwar accords waived the rights of victims to seek legal redress.
Hundreds of thousands of Nazi-era forced laborers and their heirs, by contrast, have received billions of dollars in compensation from the German and Austrian governments and corporate sectors since 2000. Formal apologies and educational initiatives were major components of those reparations programs.
Whereas Japan often appears stuck at the stage of historical truth telling, German President Johannes Rau displayed his nation’s commitment to reconciliation with individual war victims when the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future was established by the German parliament in July 2000.
“I know that for many it is not really money that matters,” Rau said. “What they want is for their suffering to be recognized as suffering and for the injustice done to them to be named injustice. I pay tribute to all those who were subjected to slave labor under German rule and, in the name of the German people, beg forgiveness. We will not forget their suffering.”
“Remembrance Preserved: Third Reich Slave and Forced Labor from Poland 1939-1945” is the name of a historical exhibition that opened in May 2007 at a preserved labor camp barracks in Berlin. The exhibit will be moved to other German cities this fall, having already toured 30 cities in Poland. Researchers are now being allowed full access to Germany’s millions of archival records on WWII forced labor in Europe.
The Japanese government should “take immediate action to bring about an honorable closure to the history of Japan’s wartime forced labor,” according to Kinue Tokudome, director of US-Japan Dialogue on POWs. The California-based non-profit organization promotes reconciliation on a humanitarian basis.
“As Japan’s top diplomat and because of his family background, Foreign Minister Aso should be more sensitive to this issue and more willing to resolve it,” Tokudome said. “No conscientious politician would just wait to receive the information that his family coal mine enslaved POWs and Asian civilians.”
In the late 1990s the Australian government paid $25,000 in compensation to Arthur Gigger and other Australian prisoners of the Japanese. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and even the Isle of Man have similarly used domestic funds to compensate former POWs held by Japan. The United States has not, due to adamant opposition from the executive branch.
Gigger, long active in ex-POW groups in Australia and retired from a customs service career, said he has no animosity toward Japan. But he called on the Foreign Ministry to stop denying the reality of forced labor at Aso Mining.
“I know it happened,” Gigger said. “I was there.”
William Underwood is a faculty member at Kurume Institute of Technology and a Japan Focus coordinator. He recently completed his doctoral dissertation at Kyushu University on forced labor in wartime Japan. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is an expanded version of an article published in the Japan Times on May 29, 2007. Posted at Japan Focus on May 28, 2007.
Extracts from documents are available at http://japanfocus.org/products/topdf/2432
Previous Japan Focus articles about forced labor at Aso Mining:
Japan Foreign Minister’s Visit to POW Remembrance Service Backfires, by Matsubara Hiroshi
Previous Japan Focus articles by William Underwood about forced labor in Japan: