Japan's War on History Comes to America

A former POW—forced into slave labor for Japanese companies—on Tokyo's effort to strongarm Virginia schools.

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has a promise to keep. And it is a promise that tests his and any American governor’s ability to stand up for his constituents against economic blackmail. During his campaign he vowed to support having school textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea. Japan has reacted to this small addendum by threatening to withhold trade and investment from the Commonwealth.

Japanese ambassador Kenichiro Sasae and a pack of lobbyists have warned Governor McAuliffe that allowing two names for the body of water between Japan and South Korea, North Korea, and Russia would endanger Japanese investment in the State. The Japanese government wants to retain a linguistic vestige of Western expansionism and Japanese colonialism. Korea was a colony of Japan through half of the twentieth century and was forced to abandon its language, geography, history and culture.

As a former prisoner of war of Japan, I am familiar with the Japanese government’s use of economic threats to defend its colonial era history and unwillingness to take responsibility for Imperial Japan’s war crimes. Tokyo used these against legislation in 2001 in West Virginia to kill a resolution calling on the Japan to offer a formal apology and compensation to former prisoners of war.

In the spring of 2001, the Rules Committee of the West Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved House Concurrent Resolution No. 7. As this happened at the end of the legislative session (81st), the full House did not have time to consider the resolution. I was assured that it would be approved in House and Senate in the following year during the 82nd Legislature.

Japan’s Consul General in New York reacted to this delay by sending a letter to West Virginia legislators, Governor, and others stating that the “positive cooperation and strong economic ties” between Japan and West Virginia might be damaged if the resolution was approved. Japan would not buy the state’s coal and steel. His warning was successful and the result was that neither chamber of the Legislature ever reconsidered the resolution.

The Japanese government’s repeated intervention in efforts to set history straight is a painful reminder of the indignities I endured at the hands of my Japanese captors. I was a U.S. Army Air Corps mechanic, surrendered on May 6, 1942 at the fall of the Philippines. I became one of the thousands of POWs shipped to Japan in fetid holds aboard “hell ships” owned by Kawasaki's K-Line or Mitsubishi's NYK. In Japan, I was brutalized and humiliated as a slave laborer by four prominent Japanese companies during World War II. I was forced to work for Mitsui, Nippon Steel, Showa Denko, and Nisshin Flour Mills.

There were over sixty Japanese companies that used American and Allied POWs as well as Dutch, Indian, Korean, and Chinese civilians for slave labor. Most are major corporations that still exist and likely do business in Virginia. None have acknowledged or apologized for their use and abuse of these unwilling workers.

Virginians once questioned why a French company (Keolis) that is unapologetic for the Holocaust is allowed to service their VRE rail line. They should now ask why Sumitomo, Kawasaki, and Mitsui rail cars run on the VRE. Conditions in their factory camps (yes, plural) rivaled the inhumanity in those of the Nazis.

I think the Virginia governor should stand up to Japanese threats and ask that maybe it’s time for a means test of corporate responsibility for Japanese companies that want state contracts. Too many Virginians, native born and immigrant, suffered horribly for these companies to now allow them to operate with impunity in the Commonwealth.

No governor should allow a foreign government to blackmail his state. Further, no American should allow a foreign government the opportunity to again humiliate its once subjugated peoples. In the end, Governor McAuliffe must decide what lesson that he wants Virginia’s school children to learn: that there are reasonable alternatives to geographic names or that their governor can be swayed by intimidation.

Edward Jackfert, a native of Wellsburg, WV, was a POW of Japan captured on Mindanao, The Philippines. He was twice National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.