The Debate | Opinion

Remembering Japan’s Colonial Abuses Against Koreans on Hashima Island

Despite the claims of a former resident of the island, Japanese abuses against Koreans were widespread.

By Yuji Hosaka for
Remembering Japan’s Colonial Abuses Against Koreans on Hashima Island
Credit: kntrty via Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s Industrial Heritage Information Center, which was opened to the public on June 15, contains inappropriate content that breaches an agreement reached in July 2015 by both South Korea and Japan. In the same month, Japan had 23 sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution, including Hashima Island in Nagasaki, added to the UNESCO World Heritage list despite initial opposition from the South Korean government. South Korea’s resistance was because seven of the 23 sites were venues where Koreans were forced to work during Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Japan then pledged to South Korea and UNESCO to appropriately exhibit the historical truth behind Japan’s mobilization of Koreans for forced labor. This earned Tokyo approval from Seoul for the registration of the sites on the UNESCO list.

Less than two years later, however, the Japanese government broke its promise to present the historical fact of Japan’s mobilization of Koreans for forced labor. And nearly five years later on June 15, 2020, the Industrial Heritage Information Center was opened in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. The center is run by the government-funded foundation National Congress of Industrial Heritage.

The problem lies in the center’s exhibition quoting a former resident of Hashima (Battleship) Island as saying in testimony that no discrimination occurred against Korean coal mine workers on the island. The purpose of this exhibition thus seeks to convey the hidden rationale that though Koreans were mobilized for forced labor, Japan could legally do so as South Korea was a Japanese colony at the time. In other words, Japan is trying to apply the logic that international law allows the mobilization of forced laborers in times of an emergency like war. The same logic is being used to argue that Koreans found it natural to follow Japanese law as the latter considered them Japanese nationals at the time.

Under Japanese colonial rule, Koreans did hold Japanese nationality but were denied equal legal treatment as Japanese nationals. At the time, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan were all separate legal territories, and many cases of discrimination rooted in such differences were prevalent in Japanese colonies. For example, Koreans or non-Japanese nationals from these areas were denied suffrage for general elections. In April 1945, the Japanese government decided to grant non-Japanese in Japanese colonies the right to vote in a colony’s national elections, but this measure was never implemented. The crux of Japan’s discrimination policy lies in demanding that non-Japanese residents of its colonial territories like Korea and Taiwan fulfill their duty as Japanese without granting them the same rights as nationals.

Japan forced Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other prisoners of war to work in coal mines, the toughest kind of labor in Japan. American prisoners of war (POWs) forced to work in such mines recalled that they even resorted to self-harm to avoid working inside the mines for fear of dying. Their vivid testimonies drew heavy media spotlight.

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In Japan, coal miners were replaced with prison laborers because of tough working conditions. In large mines such as the Miike coal mine in Kyushu, the country initially sent inmates serving a life sentence or worse to work. These workers rioted many times because of inhumane treatment, and this led to major human rights violations as they were ended up assaulted or even murdered by prison guards. Japan eventually stopped sending prison labor to work in most coal mines. Mining companies then recruited those in extreme poverty, but because of a lack of workers, they decided to send people from Japanese colonies and POWs. Thus this began the reality of the sacrifice of Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and POWs to replace Japanese workers at coal mines during Japan’s period of wartime forced labor.

Statistics say approximately 70 percent of Koreans forced to work at the mines ran away because of the tough labor. When they ran away, companies took all of their forced savings. Unlike Japanese workers who could keep their bank account ledgers and personal stamps with them, Korean laborers had to entrust them to their supervisors. When Korean workers quit or escaped, all of their savings were taken by their companies.

Things on Hashima Island got even more miserable. Because escaping the island required swimming more than 18 kilometers, many who tried to flee drowned. Those caught trying to escape were forced to perform labor under extreme conditions. Masayuki Kosako, a former supervisor on the island, told the Nagasaki edition of the Asahi Shimbun in an interview on October 25, 1973, that he discriminated against Korean workers on the island. “I went to Korea to hunt down workers by force. We ordinarily discriminated against either Chinese or Korean workers. In wartime, we made workers perform labor much tougher than in the military; some of them drowned while trying to run away. When Japan was defeated in [World War II], we let supervisors of Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean workers secretly escape from the island first because of the fear of revenge from Korean workers,” he said.

The information center only shows the testimony of a former island resident, a second-generation Korean Japanese, who claimed no discrimination occurred against Koreans. He said his father worked at the coal mine on the island and denied any bullying or fingerpointing toward Koreans. He said his father was a supervisor. Koreans who had a Japanese family registry were granted the status of supervisor. For Koreans, if their family registry was registered as Japanese, they received the same treatment as Japanese. This is because of the Japanese policy designating a person’s treatment according to legal territory. The same policy applied to Japanese. If a Japanese citizen’s family registry was Korean, he or she had the same legal status as a Korean. Thus the display of such testimony itself is an act of history distortion, as the center only shows testimony from a descendant of a Korean Japanese who might have received the same legal treatment as a Japanese. Japan cannot disregard testimonies from the numerous Korean workers who suffered harsh discrimination on Hashima Island.

Political intentions could be behind why the Japanese government opened the information center in Tokyo. The suspicion is that Japan opened the center to target international tourists entering the country for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which was initially scheduled to open in July 2020. Japan might also have opened the center to secure stronger ground for prevailing on the issue of forced labor victims, which is a major source of conflict between South Korea and Japan. Despite such attempts at distorting history, the truth of history will come out. Japan must realize that its historical distortions merely continue to undermine its national image.

Yuji Hosaka teaches political science at Sejong University in Seoul. As a naturalized Korean of Japanese descent, he is also director of the Dokdo Research Institute.