How The Japanese Used American
POWs For Slave Labor
Text by Stephen Goode

Historian Linda Goetz Holmes has documented how Japanese companies exploited American POWs as slave laborers in World War II and raises questions.
Linda Goetz Holmes got interested in the Pacific theater of World War II from the accounts of a close friend who, as a prisoner of war, had worked on the Burma railroad. That friendship eventually led to her book, 4000 Bowls of Rice, about the Allied POWs who were forced by the Japanese to build that road. The title refers to the only food the starved men received on a regular basis.
In her new book, Unjust Enrichment (Stackpole Books, $24.95), Holmes takes up the story of the American POWs who worked for Japanese companies during World War II. The book's subtitle states Holmes' main theme: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs. The prisoners weren't paid, suffered beatings and other humiliations and were starved on diets that rarely went beyond 500 or 600 calories daily when they should have been getting 2,500. Many died.
Altogether about 25,000 American POWs found themselves doing slave labor at Japanese factories, shipyards and mines ó including at major companies such as Mitsui and Nippon. More than 40 Japanese companies used prisoners under these conditions.
Readers of the book will be deeply moved by the wrongs done to the prisoners. Holmes, who has been researching POWs of the Pacific war for 23 years, has interviewed more than 400 of the former prisoners. She hopes that knowing the facts about the Japanese in World War II will cause Americans to take notice and demand reparations.
"What I'm counting on is that when the American people realize what happened, and that so many of our own people did slave labor for these Japanese companies, that they'll say: ëI'm going to hesitate before I buy a Kawasaki motorcycle or a Mitsubishi automobile,'" Holmes tells Insight. "I think the American people have a sense of fairness and a sense of right and wrong, and they will be outraged."
Her book seems especially apt at a time when Americans are going through soul-searching over the accidental sinking of a Japanese boat in a reportedly restricted military zone off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii ó an event for which the U.S. quickly apologized all the way to the emperor.
Insight: American and other Allied POWs were used in war-related industries, a violation of international law.
Linda Goetz Holmes: What struck me when I was doing the research was that the companies immediately asked for the use of the prisoners. It wasn't something the Japanese army decided to do with all these men they'd taken. It was the companies that asked and the army that said, "Okay, but first pay us a fee per day for the use of the prisoners." The companies paid two yen per man per day, which was a good piece of change back in 1942 and 1943.
They paid that to the government for leasing them the use of the prisoners. Then the government said, "You will pay the prisoners the pay of Japanese soldiers according to their rank." The companies made monthly reports as if they were paying the men, and the official Japanese government records show the men being paid.
But they were not paid, and that's the basis of the claim the former POWs have against the companies: "You were told to pay us wages and you never did, and you owe us that money, with interest." The government also expected the companies to provide housing, food, sanitation, heat, but the POWs were very badly fed and housed. While being worked by the companies they starved, froze and died of exhaustion and diseases that could have been treated.
Insight: Were Americans singled out for harsh treatment?
LGH: What many of the Bataan [Philippines] survivors thought, and many of them have said it to me, is that the Americans who were prisoners were singled out for special brutality and retribution by the Japanese as payback. They thought, "You Americans, you Bataan survivors, you held out, so you cost us 10,000 people in taking Bataan."
So the prisoners felt that when a Japanese factory employee or a company foreman or the soldiers the company hired to be guards decided at random to beat a prisoner, they would choose an American. One of the prisoners told me that he felt it was as if the Japanese wanted to starve them down to about 100 pounds and then work them to exhaustion.
Insight: The Pacific POWs suffered in many ways that even POWs of the Nazis didn't have to face. That fact isn't well-known.
LGH: Many families of Bataan survivors did not find out for a whole year that their men were confirmed as prisoners. The Japanese did not issue a roster of POWs in their control or death certificates. They did give preprinted postcards to the prisoners to fill out, but they didn't mail them. Not only that: When sacks of mail came in from home, the Japanese usually wouldn't distribute it to the prisoners.
The resulting lack of communication was a terrible, deliberate hardship. The Japanese government was so efficient that it knew where every man was, what company he was working for, on what work site he was laboring. But the sacks of mail that were delivered were withheld from the men. Contrast that with the guys who were shot down over Germany. They were sending letters home, and their relatives knew where their man was and how he was doing.
Prisoners of war in Germany got Red Cross packages, while the Japanese withheld them. The boxes were delivered to the work sites, then locked up in the company's warehouse. I don't know of any location in Japan or Thailand or Taiwan where the men didn't say that, when they were liberated, they ran to the warehouse, opened it up and found the stacks of Red Cross boxes.
Insight: You have lists of the Japanese companies that made use of POWs as slave labor and the sites where they kept such prisoners.
LGH: I have an official Japanese government list of where the sites were and the companies that operated them. Every POW had a number, and nearly all of the camp numbers have a company name beside them.
Insight: These are companies everyone has heard of.
LGH: Yes. Mitsubishi. Nippon Steel, the world's biggest steel company. Showa Denko, which makes (among other things) the electrodes that go into nearly every appliance in the United States.
My personal favorite is Kawasaki. We know them for their Jet Skis and their motorcycles. We know they make the engines for Boeing 747s. And in Yonkers, just outside New York City, they have a rail-car plant with a $190 million contract with the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. They have a contract with Maryland and another with Boston. A great deal of their multibillion-dollar business is here in the United States, and that interests me a lot. Taxpayer dollars are being used to pay one of these companies that used American prisoners for slave labor and never paid those men a dime.
Insight: How did the zaibatsu ó as the big Japanese industrialists are called ó get out of being held responsible for the well-known horrors of the Japanese slave-labor system?
LGH: That's an interesting story. I had the privilege of getting to know a man who describes himself as the only person still living who prosecuted war criminals at both Nuremberg and at Tokyo: Robert Donihi. He was one of two investigators who worked very closely with our chief prosecutor [in Tokyo], Joseph Keenan.
When the war ended, [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur [the postwar governor of Japan] was given a directive: "You will assume that every member of the zaibatsu was involved in the prosecution of the war and is a potential war criminal." They were all rounded up and detained. Then Donihi and his fellow investigator could not find enough evidence, enough of a paper trail, to feel that they could sustain an indictment, and the zaibatsu were let off. German industrialists left a paper trail that the investigators could follow. The Japanese did not, and none of them stood trial.
But Donihi later came to believe that the industrialists should have been tried separately for their crimes against POWs, for their abuse of prisoners. The idea of "command responsibility" had been established at Nuremberg and continued at Tokyo, and the industrialists had command responsibility for what happened on their property.
Baron Mitsui, for instance, came in his open touring car to the Mitsui coal mine at Omuta, which had almost 900 American prisoners, thousands of prisoners from other nations and Korean conscript labor. He and his managers saw these prisoners every day and knew the condition they were in. They withheld the medicine and the heat ó it was a coal mine, after all ó and they knew that the prisoners didn't have enough to eat and saw them wasting away. They knew the injury rate was so very high.
Insight: There was a general Japanese policy of avoiding wartime guilt, wasn't there?
LGH: In his introduction to my book, the Pacific-war historian Bruce Lee mentions Prime Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu's message on Sept. 13, 1945, after the surrender had been signed aboard the USS Missouri, to Japanese legations in Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal, nations officially neutral in World War II.
It was a message that said, "The Japanese leaders intend to play up the atomic bombings not only to explain Japan's surrender, but to offset publicity on Japan's treatment of Allied prisoners and internees." And then the message said, "Since the Americans have recently been raising an uproar about our mistreatment of prisoners, I think we should make every effort to exploit the atomic-bomb question in our propaganda." What he was saying is that it's now your job to make Japan the victim.
And haven't they done a good job at making Japan the victim, and then covering up and denying the truth about the POWs?
Insight: You point out in your book that Baron Mitsui, head of a company that used POW slave labor, was a 1915 graduate of Dartmouth College. You also point out that the POWs said the most brutal of their guards were those who'd graduated from American universities.
LGH: If I had a nickel for every man who said, "The worst beatings I got were from someone with a degree from a California university!" I'd have a lot of nickels. Another was the University of Chicago: A very brutal Japanese interpreter at one of the work sites who was a nisei had been educated there.
Insight: Your book has telling photographs taken at the slave-labor work sites. Could these have been used as evidence against the zaibatsu?
LGH: Yes. Donihi said that the one taken by a Mitsui employee of company officials sitting, with the prisoners standing behind them, in front of a Mitsui office building could have been used. An old Mitsui officer building that was used as a POW barracks is in the picture. Donihi said the state of the prisoners in such photographs could have been enough to bring the zaibatsu to trial.
Insight: Some of the most striking photographs in your book were taken by a prisoner named Kirk who made his own camera. They clearly reveal the agony endured by the prisoners. Few of the men in the pictures survived the ordeal, and those that did died within six months of their release.
LGH: Terrence Kirk made a cardboard box camera. What remarkably clear photographs it took! A nisei who was a guard and interpreter at the camp who was a little bit friendly to Kirk went to the hospital and purloined some X-ray plates. This nisei didn't feel kindly toward the Japanese government because he said they'd told him his grandmother was sick and, when he came over from the United States to see her, he was immediately popped into the army.
Terrence cut the X-ray plates to fit his camera box and then asked himself what would be his darkroom. He found a dark crawl space under the Japanese soldiers' shower room, and that's where he did his developing. He made five copies of each photograph: one for himself, one for Army intelligence, one for Navy intelligence, one for the FBI and so on.
When he comes down to Tokyo after the war, he's happy he's got the photographs. They'll be used as evidence. But he was ordered to take his photographs home, put them away and not to show them to anyone. He was verbally told that if he disobeyed those orders he'd face court-martial. They made him sign a piece of paper saying he would not discuss his experience as a captive of the Japanese with anyone without prior clearance from the military.
Insight: What kind of compensation would be meaningful? What could the Japanese companies do to make reparation?
LGH: They could acknowledge that, "Yes, we used X number of prisoners," and they could establish a collective fund. If each company wished to make compensation for the number of prisoners it held, then that could be done, too. But a fund probably would be easier, with Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel the biggest payers into that fund and all the other companies joining to a smaller degree. It would be a fund for the prisoners who have survived and for the surviving widows of prisoners who have died.
The companies really should make an honorable offer to these men. They could offer them the wages, plus interest. They deserve a sincere apology.
Precedents are clear. German companies have paid compensation for slave labor, and Germans have apologized. What I ask is whether the Japanese industrialists really want to be held to a lower standard than the Germans.
Insight: How many of these former prisoners still are alive?
LGH: Between 5,500 and 5,600. I don't think widows would double that figure.
Insight: You've spoken personally to so many of the men who were prisoners of war and forced to work for the Japanese companies. Does one story stand out as particularly moving?
LGH: Probably one of the most human stories was told to me by a Bataan survivor who was from New Mexico ó Agapito ("Gap") Silva. Gap's father was employed in the railroad yards in Gallup, worked the night shift and, every night when no one else was around, would go out in the railroad yards, pray to God and cry about Gap ó every night. The wind was very strong at night in the desert and the doctors later said that it was the wind drying up his tear ducts that made him blind.
When Gap came home, he wondered why his father didn't run to greet him. When he got to the older man, his father felt his face and Gap says, "Oh, that was the hardest thing I ever had to bear in all my experience."


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