JAPAN MUST BLOCK “CONSCRIPTED LABORERS” FROM TURNING INTO ANOTHER “COMFORT WOMEN” ISSUE
The Battleship Island, a controversial South Korean film portraying a fictitious wartime revolt of Korean conscripted workers on a coal island off Nagasaki, was released in South Korea on July 26. Professor Tsutomu Nishioka, a leading expert on Korean affairs who was in Seoul last month, had this to say about his visits to two movie theaters in the Korean capital on the third day of the movie’s release:
“The first theater was about 60 percent full, with 107 of its 180 seats occupied. The second theater was only slightly more than 20 percent full, with 40 of its 180 seats filled. I would say the overall atmosphere was far from electric at both theaters.”
Meanwhile, the Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported that the movie got off to a phenomenal start, attracting a total of 1,550,000 Korean viewers in the first two days of its release. Such reporting can only be seen as propaganda on the part of anti-Japanese elements in South Korea.
“Battleship Island,” so called because of its shape, is the island of Hashima—one of 23 locations in Japan registered as Meiji Era World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The island provides a valuable guide to the history of Japan’s coal industry as the nation evolved into an industrial nation following the Meiji Reform of 1868.
As is naturally expected of a movie produced in South Korea, the movie is full of sinister fabrications. But its depiction of Japanese brutality is beyond one’s wildest expectations. Early in the movie Korean workers are depicted as having been coercively recruited in Korea and packed into the bottom of a freighter bound for Japan. At Shimonoseki, northern Kyushu, they are shoved and slapped as they disembark, before being crammed into windowless freight cars bound for Nagasaki.
These scenes make one imagine how Germans must have abused millions of Jews en route to the concentration camps in Poland, such as Auschwitz and Krakow, during the Holocaust. In waging a propaganda war against Japan over the history of the war, including the so-called “comfort women,” South Korea has treated Japan on a par with Germany, labeling it as “a nation that implemented another Holocaust.” South Korea’s motive behind such a view is obvious.
The minute they arrive at the island, male Korean laborers are herded into prison-like quarters and deprived of their freedom. Given only subsistence levels of food and constantly harassed by guards, the men are forced to work long hours under dangerous conditions. When mine accidents occur, all exits are closed in order to protect adjacent roadways and shafts while the Korean workers are abandoned to their fate.
Women and young girls are torn away from their husbands and fathers, and forced into sexual servitude at a local house of prostitution. If they resist, they are tattooed all over their bodies as a form of punishment. A scene from the movie shows a Korean woman endlessly rolled over on a shutter with numerous iron spikes projecting from its surface, finally bleeding to death.
In the end, the treatment they are subjected to being too brutal to bear, the Korean workers and their families on the island, several hundreds in all, plot a mass exodus, shooting guns and trading fire bombs in a fierce battle against their Japanese guards. The coal island turns into a bitterly-fought battleground.
I have been to Hashima to come to grips with what really happened on the six-acre island more than seven decades ago and believe that the entire island would certainly have stopped functioning as a coal mine if such a battle had actually taken place. In view of the fact that coal extraction there lasted through the 1970s and that there actually were Korean workers and their families who chose to remain on the island after the war, I must call preposterous what the movie tries to present as fact.
Fabrication of Present-Day Koreans
It definitely is not in Japanese culture for the army—or any private corporations, for that matter—to punish a woman by rolling her over a spiked shutter as depicted in the movie. This episode is a sheer fiction attributable to a woman from North Korea who was allegedly a “comfort woman.” Her claims were made in a highly questionable report filed with the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1996 by Radikha Coomaraswami, a special UN rapporteur from Sri Lanka.
I will not go into the detail of the movie any further, but suffice it to say that through it the Koreans are clearly trying to continue projecting Japan as an evil nation.
Responding to Japanese criticism of his movie, Director Ryoo Serung-wan was quoted as saying in Seoul on July 28: “I’ve based this movie on the historical facts I traced through our thorough research on what happened on the island…I have endeavored to depict the tragic circumstances of Korean workers who were coercively conscripted during the war and the barbaric behavior of Japanese imperialism.” Although Ryoo claims to have done “thorough research,” I must point out that from the beginning he obviously had no intention whatever to lend his ear to the voices of former Japanese residents of the island. Many of them have testified that the island’s Japanese and Korean residents rubbed elbows with each other harmoniously as members of a tightly-knit community.
The primary reason why a movie full of such nonsense is allowed to circulate freely through the international community today is that Japan has historically failed to refute undue criticisms of its wartime behavior or vigorously explain its side of the story. For instance, Japan did not refute the “Coomaraswami Report,” preferring to remain silent for years after the report was made. Japan also took no action when US congressman Mike Honda and his colleagues passed a 2007 US House bill unilaterally demanding that Japan apologize for having coerced Korean women into sexual servitude for the military during the last war.
What is even worse, I suspect that many of our foreign ministry bureaucrats may perhaps secretly believe the Japanese military was in fact guilty of having coercively recruited the “comfort women” and that the military did indeed treat them as sexual slaves. That is why, I believe, these bureaucrats did not rebut former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono when he issued his now controversial “Kono Statement” of 1993. In his statement, Kono attested to the military’s involvement without presenting credible historical facts.
Human beings tend to measure things with reference to their own standards. Along this line, I surmise that the baseness of their morality prompted our Foreign Ministry bureaucrats to accommodate what Kono had to say about the military’s responsibility. This is how I have recently begun to feel about this matter, having over the years watched the Foreign Ministry succumb to what can only be described as an extreme case of defeatism in its diplomacy.
This defeatism, I believe, has led to the image of wartime Japan marked by a “brutal military,” “comfort women,” and “sex slaves.” Combined, these elements are now linked to the “conscripted workers” issue.
Claiming that Korean conscripted workers were forced into labor and subjected to inhumane treatment, the South Korean government has launched a fierce offensive, demanding, among other things, that Japan set up information centers in order to admit its guilt and clear up the full scope of brutality inflicted on Korean workers.
Professor Munehiro Miwa of Kyushu University asserts that brutality, slave labor, and the massacre portrayed in the movie are all fiction. This, he stresses, is obvious from the fact that during the war many Korean workers attempted to reenter Japan after having once gone back to Korea from stints in Japan.
Citing US military statistics in Illegal Entry of Koreans available at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Prof. Miwa points out that in 1945, after the war ended, nearly 10,000 Koreans were deported after being caught trying to sneak back into Japan. “If Koreans had really been subjected to slave labor or massacred, as the Korean side claims today, one finds it very difficult to explain why these Koreans dared to seek re-entry into Japan.”
Japan’s Failed Postwar Foreign Policy
Would any Japanese repatriated from the Soviet Union after years of detention and hard labor have dared to re-enter that communist nation? I can hardly imagine such a case. That Korean workers to the tune of 10,000 sought to re-enter Japan was obviously because they felt they would be able to lead richer—and perhaps happier—lives back in Japan. This is clear proof that at the time Japan was not known as a land of slave labor or massacres.
Why, then, did the Foreign Ministry admit that Japan abused Korean conscripted workers, going to the extent of agreeing to set up information centers aimed at disseminating “facts” about the supposed abuse of Koreans? Why did the ministry volunteer to invite its own defeat?
UNESCO awards World Heritage Site status to nations on the basis of recommendations by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a professional body committed to preserving cultural heritage sites around the world. In May 2015, ICONOS fully endorsed 23 Japanese industrial sites, including the Hashima coal island, as qualified to be designated by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. But the Foreign Ministry proposed that Japan “heed what South Korea would have to say” about this matter.
Applications for registry as World Heritage Sites are made on the initiatives of individual nations. ICONOS reviews these requests and renders judgment for or against each project. I just cannot understand why our foreign ministry had to be preoccupied with South Korean intentions when ICOMOS itself had already accepted the Japanese application with no further conditions.
As could be expected, South Korea took immediate steps to block registration of the industrial sites, including Hashima. The Foreign Ministry reacted to protests from the Koreans in a reconciliatory posture, consenting to state in a formal application: “…a large number of Koreans and others ‘were brought against their will and forced to work’ under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites.” The ministry later explained unconvincingly that the expression “forced to work” was meant to say that Koreans were “put to work” in the same way as ordinary Japanese who were conscripted for wartime labor. Don’t they recognize that in the international community the expression clearly means Koreans were put to “forced labor”? Forced labor is a serious criminal offense to which the statute of limitations does not apply. Here the ministry committed an irreparable blunder.
On top of that, the ministry has promised South Korea to set up centers to disseminate information on wartime conscripted foreign workers. We must never forget that the problems pertaining to “comfort women” and conscripted workers are both attributable to the failure on the part of the Foreign Ministry to implement proper diplomacy.
It is high time that the ministry come to grips with the malicious intent that is behind all actions South Korea and China take on issues related to the war. They have their own agenda, and they are not overly concerned with the truth. Setting up the information centers as the Koreans have requested will be an inadvertent recognition of Japan’s alleged role in forced labor, and will be a repetition of the same policy errors committed in connection with the “comfort women” issue. If setting up the information centers is irreversible, they must be utilized to disseminate information globally that reflects the truth about Japan’s wartime history.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 766 in the August 17-24, 2017 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho)