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The long shadow of Japan's POW past

The issue that won't go away has also embroiled the country's prime minister Taro Aso.

Australian Joe Coombs, a former prisoner of war, points at a photograph which he says is a picture of Australian POWs at a coal mine on the southern island of Kyushu owned by the family of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso during World War 2. Coombs was speaking at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo June 19, 2009. He said that he had been denied the chance to meet Aso and discuss his treatment as a forced laborer in the mine. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

TOKYO — The last time Joe Coombs came to Japan, it was as a prisoner of a militarist state. During the final weeks of World War II, he was imprisoned on the southern island of Kyushu and forced to mine coal, unpaid and in appalling conditions.

By the time Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, he weighed just 99 pounds.

Sixty-four years later, as Japan prepares to mark the anniversary of the end of the war, Coombs has returned in search of justice.

The 88-year-old veteran of the Australian Army arrived at Yoshikuma mine via the Kawasaki shipyards in Kobe after being captured at the fall of Singapore in 1942.

He was made to perform backbreaking work for up to 15 hours a day, seven days week. Food was scarce and outbreaks of disease were common. Perceived insubordination and laziness were punished with a rap over the back of the head with a rifle butt. He saw at least two of his fellow Australian POWs die.

POW accounts of brutality at the hands of the Japanese are not unusual, of course. But Coombs’s plight comes with a twist: the owner of the mine, in which he and 196 of his compatriots worked alongside 101 British and two Dutch servicemen, was owned by Takakichi Aso, father of Japan’s current prime minister, Taro Aso.

For years, the prime minister refused to acknowledge that his family firm, then called Aso Mining, had used POWs as well as thousands of Chinese and Korean forced labourers.

But earlier this year he was forced into an embarrassing about face after Yukihisa Fujita, an upper house member of the opposition Democratic party of Japan (DPJ), uncovered proof that Aso Mining had used POW labour between May 1945 and the end of the war.

Even before Fujita discovered the dusty documents in the bowels of the welfare ministry, Aso’s attempts to distance himself from his family’s shady past rang hollow.

He served as president of the mining company’s successor, Aso Corporation, from 1973 to 1979, and a 100-year history of the company published during his tenure conveniently overlooked the POWs.

Yet he still refuses to apologize or even to meet Coombs and relatives of dead POWs whose labour contributed to his family’s enormous wealth.

“Aso repeatedly says he has no personal recollection of the war’s end, but he was president of the successor to Aso Mining,” said William Underwood, an American historian who has spent years uncovering the truth about the Aso mines. “He has airbrushed the POWs out of history. Where is the corporate social responsibility?”