Japan's Mitsubishi apologizes to US prisoners of war

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American World War II prisoner of war James Murphy (2nd right) shakes hands with Mitsubishi Materials executives in Los Angeles on July 19, 2015

American World War II prisoner of war James Murphy (2nd right) shakes hands with Mitsubishi Materials executives in Los Angeles on July 19, 2015 (AFP Photo/Robyn Beck)

Los Angeles (AFP) - Japan's Mitsubishi Materials made a landmark apology to US prisoners of war forced to work in its mines during World War II, seven decades after the conflict.

The Japanese government only officially apologized to former American POWs five years ago, and Mitsubishi's initiative appeared to be the first of its kind by a Japanese corporation.

Senior Mitsubishi executive Hikaru Kimura presented a "most remorseful apology" to 94-year-old James Murphy of California, one of just a few surviving US prisoners forced to work in Japan.

Murphy accepted the "sincere, humble" apology.

"For 70 years since the war ended, the prisoners of war who worked for these Japanese companies have asked for something very simple, they asked for an apology," he said.

"We hope to extend Mitsubishi's gracious coming forward at this time to all the other mines and factories who employed American POWs against their will."

Kimura and other company representatives met earlier with Murphy and families of other former POWs "to express our most remorseful apology for their being subjected to hard labor during World War II, when they worked in mines operated by Mitsubishi," he said.

The sprawling conglomerate, which now makes everything from cement to electronics, forced about 900 POWs to work in hard labor at four mines in Japan.

Thousands of other US prisoners were pushed into slave labor at Japanese firms during the war.

- 'Extremely harsh' conditions -

"Working conditions were extremely harsh and the POWs were subjected to severe hardship," he recognized, vowing to never let such a thing to happen again.

"As the company that succeeded Mitsubishi Mining, we cannot help feeling a deep sense of ethical responsibility for this past tragedy."

Outside board member Yukio Okamoto said Mitsubishi's past facilitation of forced labor had tormented him and his colleagues.

"I entered the room with a heavy heart seeking forgiveness but instead of grievances, I was met with generosity and forgiveness," he said.

Although it was unclear what prompted the apology, it came as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to make what he says will be a "forward-looking" statement on the 70th anniversary of Japan's WWII defeat this summer.

Abe has said he agrees with previous government pronouncements on the conflict, but does not think it appropriate to continually apologize for events more than seven decades ago.

A third-generation politician whose grandfather was a World War II cabinet member and became a post-war prime minister, Abe has long agitated for revision of the country's pacifist constitution.

US occupying forces imposed the constitution in the aftermath of World War II, but its war-renouncing Article Nine is held dear by many Japanese.

Mitsubishi's apology was made during a ceremony at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The center advocates against anti-Semitism and for Jewish rights.

"I hope that this historical occasion just spreads out through the world and helps mankind," Murphy said.