Laborers conscripted by Japan tell their tales

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Laborers conscripted by Japan tell their tales

“After the atomic bomb was dropped [on Nagasaki], we were told to clean up the area. I found a myriad of corpses, all covered in black,” explained 95-year-old Park Jun-gu, who was working in a coal mine on nearby Hashima Island.

The plight of the comfort women, a euphemistic term for military sex slaves, has received much attention over the last two decades. Less concern has been paid to another class of victims of the Japanese colonization of 1910 to 1945: Koreans forced to work for the Japanese, or conscripted laborers.

Their suffering has been recently brought to the public’s attention when Unesco decided in July to designate Hashima Island a Unesco World Heritage site for its role in the early industrialization of Japan.

Hashima is better known to Koreans as a symbol of forced labor, and Korea is pursuing adding the records of forced labor on Unesco’s Memory of the World Register.

In charge of that effort is the Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism in Korea, which is affiliated with the Office for Government Policy Coordination in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

Some 336,797 documents recorded by the victims of forced labor, Japanese enterprises and the Russian government have been recommended for the 2016 Unesco Memory of the World Register.

Of the 600 Koreans sent to work at Hashima Island’s coal mine, 122 lost their lives. Roughly one out of five did not make it home.

“I tried to amputate my limb because that seemed like the only way to return home from what seemed to be hell,” explained Lee Jung-ok, 89, who worked on Hashima Island. “I attempted to put my leg under a running coal mine wagon.”

During its 35 years of colonial rule over Korea, Japan forcibly conscripted some 147,870 men and women to work in coal mines and war supplies factories, and around 6,922 people are reported to have died, according to the Korean government’s official records. The actual figure may be higher.

Victims say that the majority of them were lured into the job and were told that “they could study while working,” which was totally untrue.

“A female Japanese teacher told us that we could attend middle and high schools while earning money,” said 84-year-old victim Kim Jung-ju.

“I felt so excited that I packed a bundle of clothes and socks, but all I was allowed to do was forced labor,” she continued. “What I received in return was a spoon of rice and three pieces of pickled radish for dinner. I was so hungry that I ate grass.”

Since Kim worked at a war supplies factory, she often experienced bombings.

“When we heard sirens at night, we immediately ran off. When we returned, there were countless armless and legless corpses,” she said.

Most of the conscripted laborers could not avoid hunger. Those who were provided a minimum ration of food were considered lucky.

An 89-year-old described the situation by telling the story of a man surnamed Lee.

“There was a guy named Lee, who came from my hometown,” Yoon Chun-ki recalled. “He was injured while working. Since he couldn’t get up, he wasn’t provided any food. He ended up dying from starvation.”

As a result, many people continued working even after being seriously hurt in order to survive. One of those people was Son Yong-am, now 88, who worked at coal mines in Sakhalin in Russia and Takashima in Japan.

“I was 16 years old, when I suddenly burned up with fever and couldn’t even move,” Son recalled. “But a Japanese supervisor kicked me with his foot and told me to get up. As I staggered up, I accidentally kicked down a heater.”

The burn scar, from ankles to thighs on both of his legs, is still visible even after decades.

“There was an accident that still makes me shiver with fear even today,” Son continued. “I was once trapped in a mine while working alone. The first people that came to mind were my parents. The next thing I thought of was my friends who had died in the past and their dead bodies wrapped in straw.”

Son was lucky to be rescued after 10 hours without any injuries.

Such coal mines, where accidents frequently occurred, were passages to hell, according to 89-year-old Kim Man-jo.

“The temperature [in the coal mine] exceeded 45 degrees Celsius [113 degrees Fahrenheit]. The tunnels often collapsed, which led to people’s death,” Kim explained. “I was once hit by a falling rock. But I was fortunate enough to only get my head torn.”

There were no breaks for forced laborers. They could not even go to the bathroom for fear of being punished.

“We were immediately punched even if we just sighed. So I couldn’t go to the toilet from the morning to night in fear of getting hit,” said Park Hae-ok, 85.

Lodgings were primitive, infested with fleas and bedbugs. They slept in an area that could be flooded with seawater when waves were high.

The conscripted laborers received almost no compensation. For a year and nine months of hard labor in a coal mine, Son only received an amount that could buy 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of rice. Son was one of the lucky few who was compensated. Some received nothing.

Park Hae-ok, who worked at an airplane manufacturer in Nagoya, revealed that Japan did not release its foreign workers even when the war ended. They were only allowed to leave two months later with the false promise that they would receive their salaries later.

Some conscripted laborers have memories of one of the two atomic bombings in August 1945.

According to the testimony of Park Sang-jae, 92, who worked at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Hiroshima, “Everything that I could see was either red or black. The river was filled with dead bodies. Many people dived into the water as all the surroundings were on fire.”

The Korean laborers have started to take the Japanese to court. One lawsuit was filed against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Korea.

According to the Korean court, the Japanese company has to provide its victims with between 100 million won ($87,700) and 120 million won. However, the company appealed the ruling and the two sides are awaiting a Supreme Court decision.

“What we victims really want from Japan before we die is a sincere apology,” said Son. “I think I will feel a little better if Japan acknowledges its faults and apologizes even now.”

BY PARK JIN-HO, CHOI KYUNG-HO, LIM MYUNG-SOO AND CHOI MO-RAN [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]

Some of the memories above have been quoted from interviews with the Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism in Korea, which belongs to the Office for Government Policy Coordination in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

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