12/08/2011 04:59 EST | Updated 02/07/2012 05:12 EST

Canada Should Forgive Japan, But Never Forget


Some 66 years-plus after it surrendered in World War II, Japan has apologized for its horrendous treatment of two battalions of Canadian soldiers captured at Hong Kong.

Of the roughly 2,000 men of the Royal Rifles of Canada and Winnipeg Grenadiers, plus support troops, that fought for some 18 days to defend Hong Kong from the Japanese attack in December, 1941, about 1,200 returned to Canada.

Nearly 300 Canadians were killed in the Hong Kong fighting. Twice that number died during the three and a half years of being imprisoned in Japan, doing forced labour on the docks and in mines, working 12 hours a day on meagre rations, and enduring various atrocities.

During the fighting, which ended in the surrender of the Hong Kong garrison on Christmas day, Sgt.-Maj, John Osborn became the first Canadian in WWII to win the Victoria Cross by covering a grenade with his helmet and his body, saving a dozen Canadian lives at the cost of his own. It wasn't until after the war that his heroism was officially recognized.

As a curiosity, the only Canadian executed as a "war criminal" in WWII was a sadistic prison guard of Hong Kong Canadians -- Kanao Inouye, a second-generation Japanese-Canadian who taunted and bullied Canadians, and was known and feared as "the Kamloops Kid" or as "Slap Happy." As well as physically abusing PoWs, Inouye would try to provoke Canadians with references to their wives being raped.

Inouye spoke English well and specialized in harassing the Canadians. Ironically, his father had won the Military Medal for Valour as a Canadian soldier fighting on the Western Front in WWI.

Sentenced to death as a war criminal, Inouye appealed that he was a Canadian; a second trial found him guilty of treason, and he was hanged.

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered a formal apology to Japanese-Canadians interned during WWII, -- as did U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In Canada, each surviving internee was awarded $21,000, and nearly $50 million was donated to institutions dedicated to promoting human rights.

Despite efforts over the years to persuade Japan to apologize for its cruelty and barbarism to prisoners of war, the closest to an apology was an expression of "regret" for what it did -- like using Korean women as "comfort girls" for Japanese soldiers.

On Christmas day it will be the 70th anniversary of the British surrender at Hong Kong. Our Hong Kong vets are a dwindling band of brothers -- every one of whom carries reminders, physically and/or mentally, of his treatment as a prisoner of Japan.

The Japanese government offering an apology to Canadian PoWs for their treatment in WWII is something of a closure for surviving Canadians and for Canada -- and, oddly, for Japan itself.

Just as Canadians today feel no personal responsibility for the internment of Japanese-Canadians in WWII, so today's Japanese were not involved in the mistreatment of WWII prisoners -- Canadians, British, Australians. But misdeeds done in the country's name reflect on today's citizens. Just ask the Germans. Or Russians.

For those interested, Nathan Greenfield's book The Damned, tells the story of Canadians at Hong Kong, and as forced-labour prisoners. For a broader look at the Pacific War through the eyes of a remarkable individual, read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Sea Biscuit -- or better still, buy the audiotape and hear the story of former Olympic runner Louie Zamperini.