Coming to terms with Korean forced-labor history

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Coming to terms with Korean forced-labor history

Tourists take photos of Hashima Island, also known as Battleship Island, in Nagasaki, Japan, on a ferry on July 25, 2022. [NIKOLAI JOHNSEN]

Tourists take photos of Hashima Island, also known as Battleship Island, in Nagasaki, Japan, on a ferry on July 25, 2022. [NIKOLAI JOHNSEN]

When I started to research industrial heritage sites in Japan and Japan's denial of wartime Korean forced labour, little did I know that it would lead me to acquaintance a Korean former communist guerrilla soldier.
In August 2022, I travelled to Busan to meet 93-year-old Ku Yonchol. Ku could not accept the rule of Rhee Syngman in a divided Korea, and when the Korean War broke out, he took up arms and joined partisans of the Workers' Party of Korea. After 4 years of living in the mountains participating in military raids and gathering intelligence from informants, Ku was arrested and served 20 years in prison. Today,
he is a busy reunification activist, and appears at least 20 years younger than his actual age.
I first learned about Ku Yonchol on an official Japanese website called "The Truth of Gunkanjima." Gunkanjima is Japanese for Battleship Island, which refers to the infamous Hashima Island in Nagasaki. The island's Hashima Coal Mine became a World Heritage site in 2015, as part of the "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution." The World Heritage site has received increased international attention as Japan has continued to ignore its promise at the time of inscription to acknowledge and present the history of approximately 1,000 Korean and 200 Chinese who were forced to work against their will in Hashima's deadly undersea coal tunnels during the Asia-Pacific War. "The Truth of Gunkanjima" website is created by Japan's National Congress of Industrial Heritage and contains official videos denying wartime Korean forced labour and even discrimination. A 15-minute video message about Ku Yon-chol was posted on this website in 2019.
Ku Yon-chol's father took up work in Mitsubishi's Hashima Coal Mine in the mid 1930s, which allowed him to move to a family apartment on the island and send for his family to live with him from 1939. Ku arrived on Hashima right before Japan started the program of wartime Korean forced mobilization. He was 9 years old (Korean age) on arrival, and he attended school on Hashima until Nagasaki was destroyed and Japan lost the war in August 1945. Ku, who witnessed Japan's brutal treatment of Korean forced laborers and experienced systematic racial discrimination, has shared his memories of Hashima at demonstrations and in the first chapters of his biography, "Shinbulsan." Japan's National Congress of Industrial Heritage took notice and decided to produce a video defaming Ku Yon-chol that denies his memories and attempts to seed doubts about the reliability of Korean witnesses of Japanese war crimes. 
In the official video message, Japanese former residents of Hashima, who also were children during wartime, laugh mockingly at Ku Yon-chol's memories of violence and discrimination and claim that everyone on the island was treated equally and they were good friends. Ku Yon-chol's memories are described as fabrications, and he is accused of acting according to a communist agenda. The former Hashima residents selected for the video hold a meeting with Kato Koko, director of Japan's National Congress of Industrial Heritage, and announce that they "cannot respect Ku Yon-chol's story" because they see it as false. Kato Koko herself also authored an article about Ku, entitled "Crazy Korean infuriates former Hashima residents: His preposterous conduct that stirs up anti-Japanese hatred," in the Japanese tabloid Daily Shincho in 2019. In the article, she accuses Korean testimonies of being "nonsensical" and suggests that former communist guerrilla Ku Yon-chol is part of a political conspiracy. Director Kato Koko often talks about Ku Yonchol, including in June 2020 on the DHC TV program "Deep truth! Toranomon news," where she again claimed that his memories are fabrications.
The Industrial Heritage Information Centre in Tokyo. [NIKOLAI JOHNSEN]

The Industrial Heritage Information Centre in Tokyo. [NIKOLAI JOHNSEN]

Kato Koko is not only director of the National Congress of Industrial Heritage, but also the director of Tokyo's Industrial Heritage Information Centre. The preparation of this information centre was promised by Japan in 2015, in order to tell the full story of the Koreans and others that were forced to work at the World Heritage Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution. I visited this centre in July 2022, and as is becoming well-known, it is operated against its purpose by actively denying that forced labour and discrimination occurred. Unesco sent a mission to inspect the centre in June 2021, and as a result expressed strong regrets that Japan is failing to keep its promise. In the mission report, it is noted that in order to improve the centre, Director Kato suggests holding a meeting between Ku Yon-chol and former Hashima islanders.
When I visited the Industrial Heritage Information Centre, I was guided by 84-year-old Chief Guide Nakamura Yoichi. In his explanations, he talked about Koreans in a highly condescending fashion, suggesting that Japan is the victim of false Korean testimonies. His rhetoric is reminiscent of that of white supremacists arguing that accusations of racism are an attack on white people. Before I had asked
him any questions, Chief Guide Nakamura asked me and the other visitors the now familiar question: "Do you know about Ku Yonchol?" 
Chief Guide Nakamura told all the visitors that Ku Yon-chol's testimonies are false, because Ku's father "would never send for his family if such abuse occurred on Hashima." He said that the centre had sent countless letters to Ku, but that he would not respond. I hid my frustration and calmly stated that of course the situation was different before the forced mobilization program started. But Nakamura falsely
informed us that the situation on the island was "precisely the same before and during the war." When I queried about Chinese forced labour, we were informed that their labour was "too light to be classified as forced labour."
Before leaving Japan, I traveled to Nagasaki and visited Hashima and the Gunkanjima Digital Museum. There was no mention of Korean labourers on my Hashima tour, but in the museum a guide explained to the visitors that Japanese and Korean labourers worked together in friendship. When I asked about this directly, the Nagasaki guide told me that there are false Korean testimonies and started to talk about — you guessed it — Ku Yon-chol.
There are many testimonies of first-hand accounts of Korean forced labour on Hashima. Some of the victims are still alive today. Even so, in Japan, Ku Yon-chol is the only named witness, and he has been made the face of "nonsensical Korean testimonies" due to director Kato's published conspiracy theories against him. The propaganda that defames Ku and completely ignores all other testimonies is a violent attack on the victims and their descendants.
When I recently met Ku Yonchol, he was unaware of Kato Koko and the way his name and honour is abused in Japan. He had not received any of the "countless letters" Nakamura claimed had been sent. Ku did, however, clearly remember joining his father on Hashima and their life there. He told me how rural life under colonial Japan forced Koreans like his father to accept dangerous work in Japan to feed and protect their families. He told me about how the situation worsened after the war went on, and about how he saw the Koreans who came after him were starved, beaten, and housed together in narrow bunkhouses and basements.
Ku Yon-chol had answers to all of Kato's malicious accusations. For example, in the online video about Ku Yon-chol it is said that he could not have seen smoke from the crematory on nearby Nakanoshima Island from his classroom window because only the post-war school building faced this direction. I presented Ku with a picture of the old wartime school building, and he immediately recognized it and indicated where his classroom was and where the windows were located. Having been to Hashima myself, I can tell that Nakanoshima was fully visible from the angle of the northeast facing windows of the old school building. I presented Ku with each of the specific Japanese accusations against him, and all can easily be dismissed by listening to him. Of course, when Kato suggested to Unesco that Ku should meet the selected Japanese former islanders, she had no intention of listening to his memories, as she herself and the islanders have repeatedly slandered Ku as a radical liar through public channels.
The author, right, with veteran and activist Ku Yon-chol at a cafe in Busan on Aug. 31. [NIKOLAI JOHNSEN]

The author, right, with veteran and activist Ku Yon-chol at a cafe in Busan on Aug. 31. [NIKOLAI JOHNSEN]

Unesco has given Japan the deadline of Dec. 1, 2022, to report on improvements of the narratives at the Industrial Heritage Information Centre. As long as Kato acts as the director, sufficient improvements should not be expected. At the same time, Japan is preparing to re-submit the recommendation to inscribe the Sado Gold Mines as its next World Heritage. At least 1,519 Koreans were forced to work in these mines during wartime, but this is not mentioned in the recommendation or in the mines' new information centre, "Kirarium Sado." Japan's unavailing attempts of increasing World Heritage inscriptions of sites of war crimes through denials and victim blaming goes against Unesco's mission of building a culture of peace.
The Sado mines, Hashima and the other Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution have potential to become deeply meaningful sites of education and reconciliation if their full history is exhibited, as is expected for World Heritage sites. There are many Japanese researchers, activists and NGO's who strive to reveal the truths attempted covered by official narratives. If those currently in charge were exchanged for an adequate team that worked with all available records and communicated with surviving victims, the relevant heritage sites could become strong symbols of peace, attracting visitors from Korea and from all over the world. How much longer must it take before the Japanese government realizes that glorifying imperialism and attacking its victims has become unacceptable in our modern international
Nikolai Johnsen

Nikolai Johnsen

The author is undertaking his Ph.D. in Korean and Japanese studies at School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London. His research is focused on colonial history 〈i style="font-size: inherit;"〉at tourism sites in Korea and Japan.  

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