JAPAN LAUNCHES CONCERTED EFFORT AGAINST FALSE CLAIMS OF FORCED LABOR DURING THE WAR
“I believe it is because of a marked decline in the ability to think critically on the part of South Koreans.”
These remarks came from well-respected conservative South Korean journalist Cho Gap-je on December 19 during a visit to the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a privately-financed think thank that I head. Among other things in a wide-ranging discussion on the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula, Cho gave his views on why 70% of South Koreans continue to support President Moon Jae-in despite his pro-Pyongyang leanings, and why they are unable to come to grips with the critical situation facing their nation today.
Cho attributed the “decline” to a decision former President Park Chung-he made in the early 1970s to ban the use of Chinese characters in writing, compelling Koreans to use only the Hangul alphabet created in the 15th century. I will not question Cho’s analysis here, but I would say that many of today’s South Koreans certainly do appear to be captivated by fictions far removed from the truth when it comes to the history of their nation’s relations with Japan.
Swept up by what they see as the “tragedy of the Korean people,” many Koreans tend to give themselves over to a strong anti-Japanese sentiment. When it comes to their views on Japan and the Japanese, they appear to be impeded by emotion, unable to employ reason.
Meanwhile, we Japanese have also over the years shied away from squarely grappling with the history of our relations with Koreans. Therefore, both Japanese and Koreans are to blame for the unfortunate chasm that has developed between our countries over the interpretation of our shared past. At least that was the case before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came into office five years ago.
The truth is a powerful weapon. By exposing the truth, I believe Japan will for the first time be able to effectively cope with the fabrication of historical records by South Korea and China. The truth is the only weapon we have.
Realizing this, Abe has endeavored to use this approach in dealing with South Korea and China. However, there is a significant number of reluctant bureaucrats at the Foreign Ministry and other governmental agencies who are resisting his initiative, believing that presenting even basic facts will unnecessarily arouse the Koreans and the Chinese.
Against such a backdrop, the Abe administration has achieved a significant feat by getting the National Congress of Industrial Heritage (NGIH), a general incorporated foundation, to introduce a multilingual section on its website (https:/sangyoisankokuminkaigi.jimdo.com/). Launched on December 22, the site is designed to disseminate facts about Korean and Chinese workers on the southern Japanese coal island of Hashima, popularly known as the “Battleship Island” because of its shape.
Following on the heels of their efforts to defame Japan over the so-called “comfort women” issue, South Korea and China are now demanding an apology and compensation from Japan for the supposed wartime conscription of their citizens. “The Battleship Island,” a fictionalized account of life on Hashima made by a South Korean director, was released this year and shown to UNESCO officials and diplomats in Paris in July. Many books have been published on the same subject. In this coming year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see statues of “conscripted workers” being built next to “comfort women” statues not only in South Korea but elsewhere across the globe.
Japan’s Full-Fledged Rebuttal Expected to Start Soon
Korean and Chinese activists call Hashima “Hell’s island” or the “island of forced labor,” going all out to position Japan as a nation that committed a holocaust against fellow Asians on a par with Germany. But Japan cannot afford to fail to learn from its mistakes with the “comfort women” issue. Japan’s strong resolve is reflected in the message from the NCIH website—a declaration of a determination to face Korean and Chinese fabrications with solid facts, and let the truth speak for itself.
Japan’s resolve to refute unfounded allegations can be seen in the video testimonies of Hashima’s former residents. These residents, who once lived on the island as miners and spouses of miners, rebut all of the false accusations that Korean and Chinese workers were forcibly recruited, put to slave labor, and subjected to inhumane treatment.
One example of the spurious books published on this subject is Battleship Island (Gen Shobo, Tokyo; 2010). In this 334-page screed, the late leftwing journalist Eidai Hayashi states that, “The Korean conscripted workers landed on the island through its ‘Gate of Hell,’ through which they never got out of again.”
Former residents brush aside Hayashi’s claim as simply ridiculous, saying: “There was no such gate (as the ‘Gate of Hell’); we neither knew nor heard of such a gate on our island.”
As for Hayashi’s contention that the workers could not get off of the island once they landed on it, the former residents have this to say: “All of us who lived on the island had to obtain permits to travel. Japanese and Korean residents were subject to the same treatment.” They explain that the authorities made the permits mandatory after some residents, heavily in debt, had failed to return from their trips.
Hayashi also said: “The Chinese were dealt with particularly severely. Should a Korean laborer attempt to speak to a Chinese member of the work force, men in charge of labor affairs armed with guns would dash quickly towards them, telling them to ‘not approach each other without permission,’ sometimes beating both of them.” To this, a former resident responds:
“The author doesn’t know what he is talking about. Even during the war, Japan was not the sort of a country where a hoard of policemen paraded around the streets brandishing guns…On our island, nobody was standing guard with a gun. What little policemen we had stationed on the island at the time used to tell us that they were bored stiff because there was absolutely nothing for them to do.”
At its peak, more than 5,000 people lived on Hashima. That police had little to do in a community with the highest population density in Japan is proof that the people there managed to keep peace and harmony by closely cooperating with each other. As a female former resident testifies, “it was an island on which all of us, Japanese and Koreans alike, helped each other and lived peacefully together.”
Another former resident chimes in:
“On our island, there were only two real soldiers. They were military policemen no less.”
It is significant that the only soldiers on the island were two military policemen. Ordinarily, military policemen were entrusted with maintaining order and preventing crimes committed by military personnel. That they were in charge of law and order on the island must have meant that public order was overseen that much more strictly there. This also means the authorities would not have put up with the cruelty and mass killings Hayashi claimed were committed against Korean conscripted workers and their families.
Witnesses of History
Hayashi depicts the harshness of the coal mines where the Koreans worked as follows:
“Put to work in undersea pits with coal seams located just 1 meter (1.09 yards) above, the Korean miners had to drive their pick axes into the seams with one knee drawn up…and in areas where the so-called ‘2-shaku seams’ were only 60 centimeters (0.66 yards) above, they extracted coal with pick axes with short handles while being compelled to lie flat on their backs.”
Hayashi’s descriptions are readily denied by the former islanders, all of whom have experience working in Hashima’s pits.
They note in unison: “We extracted coal in the pits by using a powerful ‘air blaster.’ Pick axes were used only when we broke loose small chunks of coal protruding from the seam.”
In other words, their work did not demand the use of pick axes as described by Hayashi.
As regards working “with one knee drawn up” or “lying flat on their backs,” the living witnesses testify: “There was absolutely no need for us to dig coal with one knee drawn up. If that had been necessary, how could we have managed to use those big coal carts to take up the coal we dug up? …Besides, it was (technically) too risky most of the time to use relatively inexperienced Korean miners to extract coal, so we had them work behind us experienced Japanese miners, collecting the coal we dug up and loading it onto the coal carts and pushing them towards the pithead.”
Each of these testimonies, reflecting the personal experience of the veteran miners, is concrete and specific. Their testimonies speak volumes about the conditions of the pits, the process of the mining operations, the various pre-work preparations, what they wore, and the teaming of miners. They will definitely serve to rectify the grossly fabricated information circulated unverified over the years as regards the truth about the wartime workers from Korea and China.
A wide range of materials will now be checked against these testimonies, including: Hayashi’s other books and articles; brochures written and edited by Oka Masaharu Resource Center for Peace in Nagasaki; and an article about the NHIC carried on June 6, 2015 by the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung.
On the NCIH website, one can access not only the former residents’ testimonies but photographs and drawings showing the island in its prime. (Its undersea mines were in operation from 1890 to 1974 as one of Japan’s most advanced and productive mining facilities.) They are an impressive reminder of the stunning modernity of the mining facilities developed by our forefathers and the tremendous energy that Japan poured into coal mining as a national industry.
In 2018, South Korea and China will undoubtedly be intensifying their propaganda war efforts against Japan more strenuously than ever before. A steady dissemination of fact-based information on Japan’s wartime past involving these and other Asian nations is all the more important now. We must prepare to grapple squarely with the nefarious scheme to defame and disgrace Japan as a nation wrongly accused of having implemented a holocaust against the Koreans and the Chinese.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 875 in the combined January 4-11, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)