Our Fight for Disability Justice Must Also Confront War and Militarism

Militarism has rarely been part of disability rights organizations’ policy priorities or discussions. Instead, most of the mainstream disability community’s advocacy efforts related to the military have centered around veteran rights, having disability inclusion in military service, or disabled refugee rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. While these priorities may benefit individual rights, they do not tackle deeper issues of militarized violence against marginalized communities, how militarism divests community resources, and the broader cycle of injustice and inequity in which militarism and colonialism are active participants.

Within disability rights organizations, the presence of board members and corporate partners who have contributed to and profited from militarism can act as an obstacle to having intersectional discussions and actions around militarism and ableism. A central example is Mitsubishi, a group of Japanese multinational companies that also has headquarters in the U.S., which frequently appears as a sponsor or partners with various disability organizations in the U.S. In 1991, the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) was established with a $15 million endowment from Mitsubishi Electric Corporation and the Mitsubishi Electric U.S. group companies and provided grants to multiple disability programs in the U.S. However, Mitsubishi is well-known for its engagement in militarism in collaboration with Japanese colonialism and imperialism: It has contributed to militarized violence across the globe.

Imperial Japan’s War Economy Was Dependent on Forced Labor

In the early Meiji era, beginning in 1868, the Japanese government initiated Western-style industrialization and instituted industrial enterprises under its ownership. By the 1880s, these factories and shipyards were sold to emerging entrepreneurs who later established zaibatsu. Zaibatsu were giant family-owned trusts, dominating Japan from the industrialization period in the late 19th century until the end of World War II. The four largest were Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Yasuda. Private big businesses played critical roles in war production in all major Allied and Axis countries (with the exception of the Soviet Union) during World War II. Mitsubishi was one of the top munitions manufacturers and had 200 companies in various sectors including electric power, shipbuilding, mining, marine engineering, dockyards, finance, aircrafts, military vehicles, chemicals, glass, and more. They constructed mines and factories overseas in places such as Korea, China, Russia and the Philippines, and subjugated the agricultural production and distribution in Southeast Asian and Pacific Islands under Japanese colonial rule.

Similar to Nazi Germany’s economy, Imperial Japan’s political economy was militarized and dependent zaibatsu that relied on the use of forced labor. Coercive labor recruitment and exploitation in Japan’s war industry took a number of different forms in multiple geographical locations. The term “coerced mobilization” is helpful in understanding how this took place. The Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan defines coerced mobilization as “a mobilization by physical restraint and intimidation as well as mental restraint and conciliation by Japanization education, persuasion, arbitrary decision, employment fraud, and legal enforcement.” From 1938 to 1945 it is estimated around 6.5 million Koreans were forced to work for private companies in Japan under the National Mobilization Law, on top of 60,668 as civilian laborers in the military and 209,279 as military combatants. Other forced laborers included Filipinx, Americans, Chinese, and more. In her book, Unjust Enrichment, Linda Goetz Holmes shared a list of 50 Japanese firms that are known to have used 12,000 American prisoners of war between 1942 and 1945, where the primary users were Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel. Six prisoner-of-war camps in Japan were linked to the Mitsubishi conglomerate during the war, and they held 2,041 prisoners, more than 1,000 of whom were American. In the final years of World War II, around 40,000 Chinese men were forced to work for the Japanese companies, and more than roughly 8,000 lives were lost due to maltreatment and abuse. For the Mitsubishi mining company alone, 3,765 Chinese people were enslaved, according to a survey by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Policing, imprisonment and punishment were routinely used to control, exploit and dehumanize the forced laborers. This not only created debilitation and disablement among the laborers, it also distinguished between “desirable” and “non-desirable” laborers, and disposed of those who were deemed no longer profitable after gaining disabilities. In these hazardous work environments, without access to adequate food, rest, water and medical care, and being subject to harsh physical punishments by the armed employees or military personnel, forced laborers developed psychological and physical disabilities over the time. According to a report by Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan in 2019, the laborers in coal mines suffered severe pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases, and even after returning to their home countries, the symptoms persisted and eventually led to their deaths. Escaping was nearly impossible as the worksites and living spaces were strictly controlled by the military. Barriers such as barbed wire — or water, like the case of Hashima Island where several Korean laborers tried escaping by swimming and holding onto wood panels but ended up drowning — prevented escape.

While disabled people were not primarily targeted by the mobilization process, under colonial rule, there was little or no infrastructure to support them, and they became subject to forced institutionalization, sterilization under the Eugenic Protection Law and exploitative labor. Most of the survivors faced lifelong disabilities and shared their experiences upon returning home, which ignited international push toward remembrance and reparations.

Requests for reparations and sincere apologies have risen since the 1990s, spearheaded by Korean survivors, their families and their allies. Unlike the cases with Chinese and American survivors, Mitsubishi did not make apologies or compensations to the Korean victims and their families. In November 2018, the Supreme Court of South Korea ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate 100-150 million won (between $89,000 and $133,000) to each of five women. Mitsubishi appealed against the decision; the appeal was dismissed in 2021.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi has not fully acknowledged its history of militarized coercion, exploitation and violence. In 2016, the company made an apology to Chinese victims of forced labor and agreed to pay about $15,000 to each person. However, Kang Jian, an attorney for the Chinese victims, pointed out that the company avoided mentioning critical facts in the agreement in relation to the forced labor such as the use of torture, and said she would “continue to defend the truth and the rights of those who have been hurt.” In 2015, Hashima Island, called “Hell Island” by Korean forced laborers, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site representing the Meiji Industrial Revolution. The Korean government, civic groups and allies in Japan condemned the decision, saying, “designating such a place as a World Heritage site violates the dignity of the survivors of forced labor as well as the spirit and principles of the UNESCO Convention.” In 2018, UNESCO included a requirement to state the full history of the site, including forced labor for public education, and reiterated this in 2021 as the Japanese government failed to follow the provision.

After World War II, Mitsubishi was disbanded and broken up into smaller enterprises whose stocks were sold to the public. For several years, these companies were banned from collaborating with each other as well as using the name and trademarks. However, as the Korean War broke out and the U.S. Army needed an industrial supply base in Japan, such restrictions were lifted in 1952. Mitsubishi also did not experience serious loss of the wartime managerial executives, who were not purged or returned from the expulsion. From the 1950s to 1960s, Mitsubishi contributed to the economic growth of Japan, transforming into an enormous keiretsu, a massive publicly traded corporation with many divisions operating separately but connectedly, including steel, shipbuilding, mining, oil and natural gas. Mitsubishi and Japan both benefited from the war in neighboring Korea and military industrialization as a result of it.

Mitsubishi continued to evolve, expanding its fields to aviation, space development, surveillance, data communication and defense manufacturing. However, such proliferation was obstructed due to a legal restriction in 1967, which was enhanced in 1976 (the Three Arms Exports Ban), following domestic and international criticism of Japan’s profiting from the Vietnam War by selling military supplies to the U.S. and South Vietnam. This banned the country from exporting arms to three groups: communist bloc countries, countries subject to arms exports embargo under the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions, and countries that were involved or likely to be involved in international conflicts. On April 1, 2014, Japan’s Abe administration ended the ban based on the policy guidelines of its National Security Strategy shared in December 2013 and resumed the arms export.

According to the Arms Industry Database by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Mitsubishi’s revenue in 2020 was $5.34 billion, which includes sales from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries ($4.42 billion) and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation ($920 million). In recent years, Mitsubishi initiated partnerships with several U.S.-based defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing to advance their technology and equipment, and has invested in military-related research institutions like the RAND Corporation.

Militarism Is Antithetical to Disability Justice

Mitsubishi is one of many examples showing how the entanglement of capitalism and militarism perpetuate and exacerbate ableist politics of desirability, profitability, disposability and productivity. This conjunction is deadly and pervasive, continuously evolving, expanding and diversifying. Anti-militarism work may take different shapes and forms depending on the context, needs and values of each community, but fundamentally, it aims to restore dignity of people and planet, eradicate the society’s reliance on militarism, and prevent and end any wars — goals that are interlinked with the principles of disability justice. The U.S., especially, has a long history of inflicting militarized violence against disparate marginalized communities and also on Indigenous peoples’ stolen lands. Meanwhile, disability rights, with its legalistic approach, may provide access to resources and status to some communities but face limitations in radically transforming the societal conditions that have created and contributed to such violence.

Abolishing militarism is an essential part of disability futures. Beyond publishing statements, there should be more in-depth conversations centering those who are directly impacted by the issues and addressing the intersections of militarism, capitalism and ableism. I urge disability rights organizations to support local and national anti-militarism grassroots efforts, learn from the work and critically reflect to integrate into the organizing. Anti-militarism movements should also be accessible and build disabled leadership. Making such connections should go beyond the critique of such systems: It should require examining how and with whom we may work to abolish the systems that contain, harm and disappear communities in the long term.