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Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001

Tanaka apology seen as a start

Ex-POWs ultimately want compensation for slave labor


Staff writer

Former American POWs and their supporters greeted Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka's apology delivered to them Saturday in San Francisco with mixed reactions, saying it was a good start but still a long way from a solution.

In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Tanaka noted that the war has left indelible scars on many people, including prisoners of war.

"I reaffirm today our feelings of deep remorse and offer a heartfelt apology," Tanaka said. It was the first apology to former American POWs by a ranking Japanese government official.

"The Foreign Minister offered an apology from the government," former POW Lester Tenney said during a telephone interview from the United States. "We are seeking apologies and compensation not from the Japanese government, but from individual companies who used us as slave labor." Tenney was a slave laborer at a coal mine run by the Mitsui group during the war.

George Cobb, who was a slave laborer for the Mitsubishi conglomerate during the war, also said via a phone interview from the U.S., "Tanaka's apology was carefully worded and did not address the issue of responsibility."

Tanaka's apology came at a time when calls within the U.S. for Japanese companies to offer financial compensation are growing stronger.

The U.S. and Japan continue to insist that all repatriations were settled under the 1951 peace treaty. That view was upheld last fall, when a federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a lawsuit filed by 700 ex-POWs seeking compensation.

But there is growing political pressure in Washington and elsewhere to reinterpret the treaty in a way that would allow former slave laborers to sue Japanese companies.

Three pieces of legislation are currently being debated in Congress. The first, HR 1198, was introduced last spring and is known as the Justice for POWs Act. It was introduced in the House of Representatives by California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

HR 1198 has bipartisan support from 186 representatives, including the speaker of the House, and calls for a reinterpretation of the treaty that would allow lawsuits against individual Japanese companies based on the fact that Japan reached separate settlements on POW compensation with other countries, including the Netherlands, after it signed the San Francisco treaty.

In addition, two related bills are currently being debated in the Senate. The first, introduced at the end of June, is the Senate's version of HR 1198. The second, S 1272, was introduced at the end of July and would make it easier for suits to be introduced in various states.

Unlike HR 1198, though, neither Senate bill directs the courts to reinterpret the 1951 treaty.

Currently, 26 separate lawsuits have been filed throughout the U.S. against 31 Japanese corporations who used American POWs as laborers.

Last week, in a federal court in Chicago, two former slave laborers filed a $1 trillion lawsuit against the people of Japan on behalf of nearly 437,000 former American POWs and their families for acts committed by Japan, including forced labor, during the war years.

The growing calls by ex-POWs and their supporters for Japanese companies to offer compensation and an apology has also created problems for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

While the president maintains that the San Francisco treaty covered war claims, one of his Cabinet members, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, has said he believes Japanese companies should apologize, adding he would assist veterans in their efforts to seek compensation.

"Principi's comments mark a real point of difference with the Bush administration over the issue, and pressure on Bush to support the veterans will likely grow in the coming weeks and months," said Elisabeth Rutledge, a spokeswoman for Justice for Veterans, a Washington D.C.-based nongovernmental organization that represents former American POWs and slave laborers.

That pressure, however, is giving the U.S. State Department and the Japanese government headaches.

"Things between the U.S. and Japan are already difficult enough because of various Okinawa-related problems. The last thing we need is something like (the POW issue)," said one U.S. State Department official in Washington.



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