by Chris Suen
In the Pacific Theatre of World War II, Allied POWs including American soldiers endured agonizing treatment from their Japanese captors. Most notably, the experiences of POWs transferred to the Japanese home islands. The war effort required that able Japanese males serve their country thus creating a shortage of laborers to fulfill the needs and demands of the industries and the country itself. POWs found themselves mobilized as a labor workforce to help augment the Japanese war-time industry replenishing the depleted Japanese manpower in response to World War II. Most notably, is the utilization of POW slave labor within the country’s Zaibatsu or business conglomerate a monopoly.) Zaibatsus were family corporations that following the country’s westernization process through the Meiji Restoration in the ate 19th century and subsequent industrialization in the beginning of the 20th century. Notable Zaibatsus were: Sumitomo, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Yasuda to name a few. Associated firms under the umbrella include notable modern day companies including: Mazda, Mitsubishi, Sapporo Brewery, Honda, and Nikon. The four Zaibatsus held extensive and diverse industries throughout Japan and consequently had significant influence on the country’s economy. In the U.S the monopolistic trusts of Standard Oil and U.S Steel can be considered as similar models to Zaibatsus. To feed the massive industries required abundant access to raw materials such as oil, iron, coal, rubber, just to name a few which was not abundant on Japan itself.
However, the country’s Asian neighbors did in fact have these valuable resources that were necessary for Japan’s economic growth. The only viable way to acquire access to these sought-after resources was through one way: military expansion. Although, conflicts such as wars aren’t in the Zaibatsu’s best interest due to international trade, the benefits outweighed the cost and in an ironic twist, the Zaibatsus would benefit from wartime Japan. The argument could be made that in this moment Japan’s Zaibatsus turned into what some people call the “Military Industrial Complex” where wars are good for business and the economic viability of industries that feed sought endeavors.
Even though conflict with the U.S and the Allies although bad for the interests of Zaibatsus, the prospect of resources and profits from the war effort became tantalizing for the Zaibatsus which held enormous sway on just on the country’s economy but also the country’s government as well. World War II brought economic wealth to the Zaibatsus however a looming problem emerged: a shortage in the workforce as many of the labor force were mobilized into the military. Japan’s military provided a supply of labor options: Allied POWs captured in the Pacific. To acquire this cheap form of labor required the Zaibatsu to pay a fee and subsequently buy POWs from the military. Japan’s industries were at times employing slave labor to supplement the workforce. POWs were treated like stock animals rather than human beings regarding their labor conditions. Comparisons could be made to the “Gilded Age” where working conditions in U.S industry during the late 19th to early 20th century were atrocious and loss of life was all too common. In Japan, POWS had to endure terrible working and living conditions, long arduous hours of labor without pay or compensation, endure beatings, torture, and possibly death at the hands of the Zaibatsus who also served as their prison guards. Japan’s industry was feed off the blood, sweat, and tears of the POWs whose liberation came about with Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945. Over seventy years later many of the Zaibatsus still exist and their firms are fortune 500 companies that have global name recognition.
However, the stain of slave labor during World War II still exists and to this day many former prisoners continue to lead the fight for Japan and the companies to formally acknowledge and apologize for their wartime actions regarding POWS as slave labor. Although some small statements of regret have come from some industries, Japan has failed to acknowledge or even apologize to the former POWs which as each day goes by, more and more of them pass away without the closure that they so desperately want and what they are owed. This injustice continues, because of Japan’s unwillingness to acknowledge their past actions and their subsequent refusal to reconcile with their own past. It is a matter of pride for Japan and at the expense of the dwindling number of former POWs who suffered at the hands of the Zaibatsus and the country.
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Growing up as a child in Hong Kong, I heard much about the terrors that my grandparents on both sides of the family had endured under the rule of the Japanese during their invasions in Pacific East Asia. While these tales horrified me as a child, it sparked an interest in me and set me on the path of getting my bachelor’s degree in history at the University of San Francisco. I was so intrigued by the subject that by the time I was fourteen, I had read Iris Chang’s award winning book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which was a gift from my grandfather, who insisted that this portion of history can never be forgotten.
As I grew up, I soon realize that most people in the world, even my peers in Hong Kong, were either indifferent or ignorant of the subject. Whilst I was disappointed by this realization, it continues provide me with the motivation and drive to spread the knowledge of this largely forgotten past; as the age-old expression goes: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
Nicole Dahlstrom is a non-profit marketing specialist with a history of coordinating marketing efforts for non-profit start-ups. She began her career while still in college when she interned at a local non-profit start-up called Spread the Care. After receiving a B.A. in Marketing, Nicole spent a year as an employment specialist with the national volunteer program, AmeriCorps. During her term of service, she aided a diverse set of clients with anything from learning to speak English to writing a business plan. Since finishing her term of service in September of 2014, Nicole has pursued a freelance writing career while studying online marketing for non-profits. She currently works as the Development Coordinator for the growing San Francisco based non-profit, Pacific Atrocities Education.