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Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009
Aso Mining POWs seek redress
Australians recount beatings, starving, rags in lieu of clothes
By MASAMI ITO
Former Allied prisoners of war who were forced to work for a company run by Prime Minister Taro Aso's family during World War II said they were placed in extremely dangerous conditions with very little food or clothing.
Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Yukihisa Fujita released transcripts Friday afternoon of recent phone interviews he conducted with three Australian POWs who worked for Aso Mining Co. Fujita urged Aso to recognize their hardships and to apologize.
One of the POWs, John William Hall, 90, said beatings in the mines were "common."
"I forgot to salute or something, some little thing like that (would anger the Japanese staff)," Hall told Fujita. "The last (beating) I got was for not saluting a Japanese soldier."
Arthur Gigger, another former soldier, said he did not witness any physical violence.
All three former POWs, however, stressed that the working conditions were terrible and that they were "working in rags" with little food.
"The clothing we wore didn't exist, really," Gigger said. "That was the biggest thing that we missed . . . and food, food and clothing."
Joe Coombs, the third interviewee, said he worked 12-hour shifts and due to the lack of food his weight dropped to about 51 kg. He said he normally weighed 82.5 kg.
Until recently, the government and Aso refused to acknowledge that Aso Mining had used POWs as workers in the company mine in Fukuoka Prefecture. However, last December the health ministry found buried documents backing the allegations.
The documents revealed that Aso Mining used 300 Allied POWs — 101 Britons, two Dutch and 197 Australians, including Hall, Gigger and Coombs. Two POWs died while working at the mine, but neither their names nor cause of death were released for privacy reasons.
The use of POWs as laborers was not illegal, and at that time Japan was not a party to the Geneva Conventions, which forbid forced labor and maltreatment.
One of the experts who attended the news conference explained that while there seemed to be fewer acts of violence at Aso Mining compared with other camps, the harsh conditions under which the POWs worked should be viewed as "forced labor."
The three veterans, according to Fujita, plan to send a letter to Aso and the government to demand an apology for the hardships they endured at Aso Mining and for ignoring the facts for so long that POWs worked at the mine. They also plan to claim the wages they should have received for their labor.
Fujita also stressed that Aso needs to express regret and apologize to the former laborers, as well as pay their wages if he cannot prove that money was paid. The three Australians have stated that they received compensation from the Australian government, but nothing from Japan or Aso Mining, Fujita said.
In response to a series of questions submitted by Fujita, the government said Friday it paid compensation to the Allied POWs in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed in 1951 through the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"The money was not a payment of wages but for the government to express its intention to compensate for the unjust hardships that the Allied POWs suffered while they were prisoners in Japan," the government said in a statement, adding that while the money was allocated to 14 countries, including Australia, it does not know how each country distributed the cash.
On the many past occasions Aso was asked about the Allied POWs and their treatment at Aso Mining, he would reply that he was a young child and doesn't remember what went on.
"If we were to follow (Aso's reasoning), that would mean that the prime minister does not need to take responsibility for anything that happened before or after his term," Fujita said.
"As a prime minister of a nation who represents the country, Aso needs to take responsibility for the past as well as the future."