Seeking to preserve a communityUJI, Japan ― On a street in the Utoro district of this city near Kyoto, rows of placards opposing the forced removal of the residents were prominently displayed recently. “Getting rid of the anti-war symbol of Utoro is the same as wiping out history,” read one sign.
The empty houses scattered along the streets seem like shabby ruins, and the narrow streets are piled high with construction waste material. There are no stores in the area.
Some 65 households comprising 203 people are in this area covering 5 acres, located 20 minutes from Kyoto by train. They are all Koreans. This is the last surviving community of Koreans brought to Japan and forced to work virtually as slaves when Korea was under Japanese rule. Now, the residents feel the threat of eviction by the current private owner of the land on which the village is situated.
The community was created in 1941, when 1,300 Koreans were transported here to build a military airbase in Kyoto. They “volunteered” for the work to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army.
In 1945, when World War II ended, they all lost their jobs, along with the tiny amount of salary they had earned. There was no financial support from the Japanese government.
Koreans who were forced to work as miners in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, or the South Sea islands also arrived here. But, because of discrimination against ethnic Koreans in Japan, finding employment was difficult and most Koreans lived in extreme poverty, collecting and selling trash.
There was no water supply until 1988 because Nissan Shatai, a Nissan Motor subsidiary, blocked the installation of water pipes, saying the residents illegally occupied the land. Until then, their water supply came from wells.
“We were forced to come here, to this pigsty, and survived all kinds of hardships,” said Mun Gwang-ja. Ms. Mun, 84, arrived in Utoro in 1941 with her father and husband, who worked to build the airbase. “I don’t understand why we are now told to leave here. We didn’t do anything wrong but we were accused by a court.
“Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the end of the war and the 40th anniversary of Korea-Japan diplomatic relations, but our sorrow here in Utoro has not ended,” she added.
“From dawn to dusk, we kept digging out earth,” said 88-year-old Choi Jung-gyu, who was brought to work at a mine in Fukuoka in 1942. He was then 26 and living in Daegu. “I was whipped by Japanese supervisors when I was trying to take a break. We miners slept covered by only thin blankets every night. It was freezing. Now we are being asked to leave. There is no place we can go to.”
Japanese citizens have supported the Koreans in Utoro, forming an association in 1989 to preserve the town. Recently, the Korean ambassador to Japan, Ra Jong-il, met with the Kyoto prefecture governor to discuss the issue on their behalf.
“We are going to review specific plans to support these people and discuss them with the Japanese government,” an official said. “We hope to seek cooperation from regional governments and non-governmental organizations in Japan on the social and moral aspects.”
“Utoro residents were able to survive because they had a community, and taking it away from them is equal to taking away their right to live,” said Kazuo Hayakawa, the chief of the Residential Welfare Research Center. “The local government needs to purchase all the land and talk with the residents about what kind of community they want to create together.”
But the prefectural government is still lukewarm on the issue. “We are worried about a forced removal, but this is in the first place a civil case to be dealt with between the landowner and the residents,” Manabu Kimura, a prefecture official, said.
Korean town in Japan has a sad past
The tragic history of Utoro dates back to 1941, when 1,300 Koreans were brought to Kyoto to build the Kyoto Airfield during World War II.
The community’s land previously belonged to the Japan International Aviation Co., a military aircraft manufacturer. The Korean laborers camped in Utoro during the airfield’s construction, which was halted in 1945, prior to completion, when Japan surrendered.
The good news of Korea’s liberation from Japan was short-lived, however, when the workers found that they had lost their jobs and way of life.
In 1946, the company changed its name to Shin Nikkoku Kogyo Co., and started making buses. But no jobs were offered to the Korean workers.
In 1951, Shin Nikkoku Kogyo became a subsidiary of Nissan Motor Co, and changed its name to Nissan Shatai.
In 1987, Nissan Shatai sold the Utoro land to a real estate company called Nishinihon Shokusan Ltd., as land prices surged during the economic bubble.
There was no discussion with the residents, nor was notice given to them.
In 1988, Nishinihon Shokusan instituted a lawsuit seeking the eviction of the residents from Utoro. The residents tried to resist that action by sending a petition to Nissan, but to no avail.
The court suggested that the residents buy the land from Nishinihon Shokusan for 1.4 billion yen ($13.7 million). But negotiation was impossible as Nishinihon Shokusan asked for 1.7 billion yen, which was three times the original price (450 million yen) it paid to Nissan.
After 10 years of legal battles, the suit ended in July 2000 when the Supreme Court dismissed the residents’ final appeal.
Currently, the land is owned by an individual, who can legally request the forced eviction of the residents at any time.
Fears of eviction haunt the residents of Utoro
“Residents are living in fear because they don’t know when the Japanese government is going to kick them out,” said Eom Myeong-bu, vice president of the Utoro residents’ council.
“Considering that Utoro has been the historical symbol of Korea and Japan’s past, the government should be more humanistic about the issue,” he said.
The land on which Utoro is situated is privately owned, he noted, saying that it should be purchased by the government to prevent the residents from being evicted.
Mr. Eom suggested that the government could buy the land under a kind of economic development policy. “The problem is whether they are willing to spend money on us Koreans,” he added.
The most urgent problem is the elderly, Mr. Eom said. “Out of 65 households in the area, people in 16 households are 65 years old or more. In 12 households there are old people living alone,” he said. He continued that if they were driven out of the village, it would mean they would die on the streets.
Mr. Eom also wants the Korean government to help support the community.
“Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Korean and Japanese modern relations. When the two countries cemented ties, Korea got compensation from Japan,” Mr. Eom said. “However, Koreans in Japan were excluded from the beneficiaries’ list.”
He said that since the Korean government has been supporting its people living abroad up to a certain point, it should also help the residents in Utoro.
“When the leaders of the two countries meet, the Korean government should aggressively discuss the issue with the Japanese government,” he said.
Mr. Eom noted that the issue of the community has been discussed by Japanese civic groups, who have informed the public about the situation and tried to help the residents.
“Now it is time for our government to help us,” he said.
The Japanese government mobilized 1,300 Koreans to build a military airport in Kyoto.
World War II ended, and construction of the airport was terminated.
Nissan Shaitai, the landowner of Utoro, signed a deal with a real estate company to sell the land.
The firm, Nishinihon Shokusan, filed a lawsuit in a Kyoto district court to reclaim the land.
Japanese residents formed an association to preserve Utoro.
Kyoto district court ordered Utoro residents to move out.
The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the residents and confirmed the evacuation order.
by Kim Hyun-ki
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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