WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lester Tenney, a 94-year-old American survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March, said he hoped to deliver a simple message about wartime responsibility to Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe if the two meet in Washington this week.
That could happen on Wednesday night. Tenney is among about 200 people invited to a gala dinner hosted by the visiting Japanese leader.
“I would shake his hand, and at the same time I most probably would say ‘don’t rewrite history’,” said Tenney, who will travel from his home in southern California to attend the dinner.
Tenney said he would also attend the Japanese leader’s speech before both houses of Congress on Wednesday. How Abe addresses the country’s wartime past is expected to come under intense scrutiny, and the issue also could come up when Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama meet Tuesday for talks. On Monday, Abe laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the war dead.
While previous prime ministers have apologized for Japan’s aggression during World War Two, Abe’s conservative agenda includes a less apologetic tone about the past. Abe has said he upholds apologies made by previous administrations, but also has signaled that he wants to focus more on the future given that it has been 70 years since the war ended.
The shift has rankled victims of that past aggression including in countries across Asia. Tenney said he survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, when thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war were believed to have died in a brutal 65-mile (105-km) march to prison camps.
Along with other survivors, Tenney was shipped to Japan where he worked 12 hours a day in a coal mine until the end of the war. The conditions were so horrible that prisoners intentionally broke bones to get time off. Fed only three bowls of rice a day, his weight roughly halved to 97 pounds (44 kg). Tenney said he suffers from black lung disease as a result of the work.
“I would like him to accept responsibility,” Tenney said of Abe. “I’d like him to say that Japan and Americans are going to be good friends. And one of the ways to be good friends is to face history right on.”
A spokesman for the Japanese embassy declined to disclose the dinner guest list but did not deny that Tenney had been invited.
Reporting by Nathan Layne and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Ken Wills