Village’s fate hangs in the balanceThe rundown streets and ramshackle houses of Utoro, a small district in Uji City, Japan, is home to about 200 people ― the descendants of Koreans who settled there during Japanese colonial rule. Following decades of squatting the land, the district faces demolition after the Japanese Supreme Court dismissed the residents’ appeals to keep their homes. Their only hope lies in an effort led by Koreans and Japanese to raise the 5.5 billion won ($5.4 million) necessary to buy the land.
“Utoro is a symbol of the last remaining colony. The residents are not yet liberated,” said Bae Jee-won, the secretary general of the International Solidarity to Protect Utoro.
The civic group is leading the fight to keep the residents of Utoro in their humble homes, and in the process, resolve what the group said a lingering injustice from Japan’s historical mis-treatment of Koreans.
“There is no place like Utoro that illustrates our modern history as collective evidence,” Ms. Bae said.
The Utoro issue took a new twist on Tuesday after Kyoto district court officials posted a public notice that an empty house would be demolished on Sept. 27. The court order was made at the request of the land’s owner.
“We did not expect this to happen,” Ms. Bae said. “I believe that the owner wants a quick resolution from us on the proposed land purchase.”
The civic group and the Beautiful Foundation begun raising money to buy the land of Utoro form its owner, Masami Inoue, a Korean-Japanese. So far they collected less than 300 million won, far short of 5.5 billion won demanded by Mr. Inoue, by September.
The civic group hopes that the Korean government will make a significant donation, acknowledging the historical importance of Utoro, and raise the issue with Japan.
“We hope that the government includes this in its annual budget,” said Park Yon-chyull, an attorney at law and co-president of the civic group.
The official response has been measured. “The government should certainly act on problems, but it needs to find ways to help Utoro through non-governmental organizations due to diplomatic concerns,” said lawmaker Lee Kwang-chol. The residents’ livelihood must also be protected, Mr. Lee added, as 13 households depend on welfare.
Along the way, the civic group has recruited 33 leading members of society to speak out for Utoro. The group includes religious leaders, writers, actors, directors, singers and professors. Among them are Seoul National University veterinarian professor Hwang Woo-suk, director Lim Kwon-taek, conductor Gum Nan-se, and lawmakers Lee Kwang-chol and Na Kyung-won. The number 33 is symbolic because 33 people signed Korea’s declaration of independence from Japan on March 1, 1919.
The civic group also started “relay fund raising” where a donor asks the next person to contribute money and so on in a perpetuating chain. Major companies like Amore Pacific, Shinhan Card, Daum Communication and Paradise have also joined the effort.
Consequent changes in ownership have led to further complications. After Nissan sold the land to a former resident of Utoro for 300 million yen, it passed to a company called Nishihon Shokusan, and then to the current owner, Mr. Inoue, in 2004. However, a business partner has filed a suit against Mr. Inoue over the ownership and the case is still pending.
At public hearings in Korea’s National Assembly in June, Lee Joon-gyu, a senior foreign ministry official responsible for the affairs of ethnic Koreans overseas, said, “It is difficult for the government to ask Japan to take direct responsibility. For now, the quickest solution is to purchase the land.”
Lawyer’s quest to fix history
A long-time supporter of Utoro believes that helping the town today would lend greater meaning to Korea’s independence 60 years ago.
Park Yon-chyull, an attorney at law of J&P Law Firm and the co-president of the International Solidarity to Protect Utoro, came across Utoro in 1997 on a trip to the region with religious leaders including pastor Kim Gyeong-nam and priest Baek Gi-ho. They raised the issue of assistance with Korea’s National Assembly and the Foreign Ministry, but their efforts never came to fruition.
The government declined to take action because the issue of compensation for civilians was considered settled already, said Mr. Park. In a 1965 treaty, Japan paid a lump sum to South Korea in compensation for the colonial era, and the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.
Long before the Korean government took interests in the situation of Utoro, 1,300 Japanese, mostly residents of Uji, created a “Movement to protect Utoro” in the early 1990s. “The Japanese neighbors had been closer in their heart to Utoro than Korea, the home country of Utoro residents,” said Mr. Park.
A long-time member of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, Mr. Park said that helping Utoro was very natural for him.
“Utoro involves political, human rights and diplomatic issues. Taking care of Utoro’s problems [helps to resolve remainig issues] 60 years after independence from Japan.
Mr. Park hopes to preserve the village as an historical site.
Voices from Utoro’s tragic past
Excerpts from the book “Joseon People’s Village Fighting Forced Removal: Utoro”
The late Kim Il-saeng was born in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang province in 1912, and moved to Utoro in 1943 during the height of World War II.
“When the war started, there were no young people in Joseon. My brother was conscripted to work in a Kyushu mine. The war worsened, and even Joseon people were drafted. There were physical examinations for the draft. I could survive in Japan, but if I was drafted I would return dead. I knew I shouldn’t be drafted...
Joseon people arrived from everywhere. Those in Kyoto came to Utoro because it was close, to avoid the draft. Temporary shelters were full of laborers, with up to 15 people sleeping in one room...
The war ended and I had nowhere to go. No one wanted me and I didn’t know what was going on in the world.”
Mr. Kim sent his family back to Korea, but he waited in Japan and ended up staying in Utoro.
Mun Gwang-ja, born in 1920, arrived at the Kyoto airfield construction site when she was 22.
“I saw many children of those who were conscripted suffer in my neighborhood. Then I heard a rumor that we didn’t have to be conscripted. They were hiring laborers...
In 1941, they said the Kyoto airfield construction was a government project and that we were definitely not subject to conscription. The recruiter said we would have a house for our family and bigger rations.
In 1943, temporary shelters were built. They were not houses, in which people could live, because the Japanese did not treat us as humans. They advertised that working in Utoro would have good conditions, but they were not. My husband carried bags of soils and always had blood stained blisters on his shoulders... We weren’t in position to complain...
After the war was over, we no longer had work. Those who gave us jobs were gone without a trace, and we were left alone... We had no money to return to Korea. We had no house in Korea and our parents were here, and my mother was ill. I desperately wanted to go home, but we could not resume life in Korea.”
Origins of a forgotten shantytown
The shantytown of Utoro originated in 1942, when 1,300 Koreans were recruited to build an airfield that would serve nearby Kyoto. The Japan International Aviation Company was established for the construction, and it registered the land of Utoro under its ownership. Adjacent to the airfield site, temporary shelters were built over 21,000 square meters (5.1 acres) for the workers, which is now known as Utoro.
The Koreans came to Utoro for different reasons. Some were conscripted to work in Japan and ended up in Utoro, while others chose labor to avoid the military draft, or were simply tricked by promises of big paychecks.
After World War II, the construction was suspended and the Koreans found themselves suddenly unemployed. The Japan International Aviation Company ceased operations, but continued to own the land as a paper company. Nissan Shatai later acquired its assets. With the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Koreans living there were no longer considered Japanese, and many of them lived without a nationality for many years. Many people left, but those without homes back in Korea or families to return to ― or without a means to leave ― remained on the land. Over the years they suffered discrimination from Japanese society and lived in unsanitary conditions. The low-lying area lacked a proper sewage system, waterworks and paved roads. Uji City refused to build a water supply because the land was owned by Nissan Shatai, so the residents relied on wells. It was not until 1988 that Utoro residents had their wish fulfilled by Nissan and the city, but only after a fire burned down four houses.
by Limb Jae-un
To donate, call (02) 364-5802~3 or visit www.utoro.net or www.beautifulfund.org