History wars: Japan’s industrial heritage listings fuel controversy over Korean forced labour in WWII

History wars: Japan’s industrial heritage listings fuel controversy over Korean forced labour in WWII

Japan and South Korea reach a compromise of sorts over acknowledgment of Korean forced labour during the Second World War, but DAVID PALMER forsees further controversy.

The history wars between Japan and South Korea continue to gather international publicity, this time focused on Koreans forcibly conscripted during the Second World War as workers in Japan’s industries.

Twenty-seven industrial sites dating back to the Mejii Industrial Revolution or the late Edo era have recently been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Of these sites, seven used forced labour in the war.

Japanese companies used over 700,000 Koreans as forced labourers during the war. The greatest use of force to acquire Korean labour occurred between 1944 and 1945, involving over 380,000 young men. These companies also used some 40,000 Chinese, and 35,000 Allied prisoners of war as forced labourers within Japan.

Koreans were paid nominal wages but half their pay designated for their families back in Korea never arrived. The unpaid wages were held by the Bank of Japan after the war and never returned to them. These companies used Allied POWs and Chinese as slave labour, without pay and treated brutally.

In July this year, Mitsubishi made a public apology for the treatment of Allied POWs who worked in the company’s coal mines. The apology has been lauded internationally by surviving POWs. No mention was made of other Mitsubishi facilities, such as the Nagasaki shipbuilding complex, where hundreds of POWs were used.

This apology is one of the first by a Japanese company. Most POWS who worked as slave labourers for Mitsubishi are no longer alive. Mitsubishi has yet to make a similar apology to Korean forced labourers, much less pay back wages and compensation.

A compromise has been reached on wording related to the presence of Koreans at the seven sites, even though the use of Korean forced labour did not occur at these sites until several decades after 1910, the cutoff date designated for the World Heritage listing.


The flashpoint for the controversy centred on the Hashima Coal Mine, also known as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) (pictured). South Korea objected to the heritage listing, along with that of the six other sites that used forced labour, because the Japanese government and corporations have never viewed the Korean labour conscripts as forced labour, but as part of the broader conscription program that existed during the Second World War.

The compromise finally reached in early July 2015 between Japan and South Korea led to agreement that the wording would be phrased ‘were forced to work’ (hatarakasareta) instead of the term ‘forced labour’ (kyōsei renkō) used in South Korean litigations against Japanese corporations and by many in Japan’s Korean Zainichi community—ethnic Koreans residing in Japan. This compromise certainly goes further than just ‘conscripted labour’ (chyōyō rōdō) used by the Japanese government and companies that have been defendants in litigation.

Professor Kan Kimura of Kobe University believes the compromise is just ‘a play on words’, while the Japanese representative on the World Heritage committee, Kuni Sato, admitted that some Koreans ‘were brought against their will and forced to work under severe conditions’ at some industrial sites.

More may be involved than just interpretations of history, given the potential economic benefits from tourism for Japan’s third largest island, Kyushu, that will be generated from these listings. The best example involves the Hashima undersea mine, which has become a major tourist attraction in Nagasaki following its global publicity as a location in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall.

The majority of the industrial heritage sites are in Kyushu, reflecting the makeup of the Japanese committee responsible for nominating sites for inscription on the World Heritage List. These include Nagasaki (Mitsubishi’s Shipyard, and the Hashima and Takashima undersea coal mine islands), Kagoshima (sites from late Edo), and Kitakyushu (the Yawata Steel Works) and Omuta (the Miike coal mine and port facility of Mitsui). Other sites include Edo-era ones in Hagi, Yamaguchi, which is very close to northern Kyushu. Kyushu’s proximity to China and South Korea has led to a boom in tourism from those countries, but far fewer Western tourists venture further than places like Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo—all to the east on Honshu.

The role of zaibatsu—the industrial and financial business conglomerates in the Empire of Japan, from the Mejii period until the end of the Second World War—in the rise of heavy industry is central to the story of Japan’s industrialisation, and industries located at the Kyushu sites were primary innovators in this development.

UNESCO criticism

The UNESCO committee criticised the absence of textile industry sites, but some of these in the Kantō region have already been listed. One can also argue, as the Japanese committee did, that heavy industry, particularly steel, shipbuilding, and the use of coal in these industries, rather than more basic textile production, was the key factor in Japan achieving economic status comparable to the West.

Although the World Heritage Site publicity lists the Yawata Works as ‘Imperial Steel Works’, the government-owned company was sold to a private company organised through a merger of six private firms to form Nippon Steel in 1934. The Nagasaki Shipyard is another example of initial government ownership that then reverted to a private company.

During the Second World War, 6,350 Koreans worked at the shipyard, according to Kim Soong-il, who was a forced labourer there and kept a secret diary recording his experiences. Originally modernised through government ownership, the Meiji government leased the facility to Mitsubishi in 1884 and sold it in 1887.

Mitsubishi’s head, Iwasaki Yatarō, worked closely with commercial entrepreneur Thomas Glover in the introduction of new technologies. Glover was a Scotsman with an engineering background and knowledge of Scottish and English shipbuilding, which then led the industry internationally in innovation, particularly with the use of iron and then the advance to steel shipbuilding.

Glover’s house, which is one of the new World Heritage sites, is on the hill where the old Foreign Settlement District was located, overlooking the harbour, with the shipyard on the other side. Because this district was sheltered by mountain ridges from the 1945 atomic bomb blast, Glover’s house and many other buildings from the 19th century are still in original condition and a major Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourist draw.

The years for the World Heritage sites submitted by the Japanese committee—1850 to 1910—have been criticised as historically inaccurate.

Mitsubishi bought Takashima Coal Mine from the government in 1881, and then Hashima Coal Mine in 1890, both on islands off Nagasaki city’s coast. According to Kim Soong-il, some 600 Korean forced labourers were used at the Hashima mine during the Second World War, and it is this fact in particular that has been at the centre of the dispute between South Korea and Japan over World Heritage listing.

Mitsubishi’s shipbuilding machine shop in Nagasaki made boilers for ships, but by 1886 was making machinery for coal mines, including the Miike Coal Mine (another new World Heritage site) owned by Mitsui, and by 1888 for Mitsubishi’s Takashima Coal Mine.

The years for the World Heritage sites submitted by the Japanese committee—1850 to 1910—have been criticised as historically inaccurate, particularly given that the Meiji Era ended in 1912. The Japanese submission for these dates argues:

After 1910, the cut-off date for this nomination, Japanese industrial development continued to grow, relying more and more on imported raw materials, but its concentrated period of technological innovation associated with the blending of western and Japanese technologies had come to an end: the Japanese industrial system was established.

This claim is not historically true. In shipbuilding, Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki Shipyard led the rest of Japan in attaining marine and shipbuilding engineer expertise on a world standard by the 1920s, not by 1910. The rise of steel shipbuilding involved considerable change during the First World War era, and Japan took advantage of these advances in its own industry.

Some of the UNESCO committee evaluation of the Japanese committee submission involved assessing the physical state of the buildings and structures at each site. Hashima buildings above the coal mine are in great disrepair and so would benefit from major protection and restoration.

The value of the site involves far more than just the original mine shaft, and it is the compressed city structures that make the site unique in the world, at one point being the most densely populated place on earth. But the majority of structures on the island were actually built after 1910, most during the Showa post-World War I era.

The restored Mitsubishi Sumiyoshi tunnels at Nagasaki (David Palmer).

This fact is omitted from the Japanese submission. In steel production, the Yawata Steel Works in Yahata, near Kitakyushu, built Japan’s first steel converter using the Bessemer process in 1901. But by the 1920s this way of making steel was outmoded, having been replaced by the open hearth system. Japan had to master this to maintain its place as an industrialised nation.

New Nippon Steel, a subsidiary of Sumitomo, has built an outdoor museum around the original 1901 converter, which towers some four stories and has extensive historical plaques with photos explaining the development of the Steel Works in later years. The converter, however, was not considered as a World Heritage Site even though it is far more representative of Japan’s industrial revolution than the two brick head office buildings that are new-sites listed. The former Yawata forge shop is significant but does not have the centrality that the 1901 converter does. The office buildings are hardly a symbol of technological revolution.

Another problem with the submissions, which was the main criticism of the UNESCO committee, was the failure of the Japanese committee to discuss in any way how they would use the sites to explain the social side of the country’s industrial revolution. There was no mention of the role of workers in these industries or the social change in surrounding urban areas. They noted that the term ‘industrial revolution’ is not solely confined to technology among historians.

When one visits the 1901 Yawata Converter today, it is located in an area surrounded by industry and port facilities. Workers lived close to the production area, and in the 1930s and 1940s a large Korean working class community settled on a hilly area near the steel works.

Possible compromise

I had the opportunity to witness high school students attending an outdoor talk by a Korean Japanese whose father had been a forced labourer at the facilities during the Second World War. Korean and Chinese forced labourers worked in the coal mines listed as sites, and the Omuta site coal mine used Allied POWs during the war. Korean forced labourers and Allied POWs worked at Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki Shipbuilding Steel Foundry in the Urakami District where the atomic bomb was centred. None of the social history from the earlier Meiji Era, much less subsequent decades, was part of the Japanese submission. At the Yawata Converter outdoor museum, however, the history does not stop at 1910.

Another reason why a compromise on wording of the Koreans may have been reached in the final agreement between South Korea and Japan that allowed for unanimous approval later is that in Nagasaki city a number of Japanese peace activists have long advocated on behalf of Korean hibakusha—survivors and victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These Koreans were denied atomic bomb medical benefits because they did not stay in Japan after the war. The court cases won by these Koreans required evidence that they had been in Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped, and that evidence revealed the type of work and forced confinement they endured, as well as how they were forcibly taken from Korea to Japan.

This evidence also demonstrated how Koreans had not been paid their full wages Nagasaki activists appear to have influenced the local government on how the restoration of Mitsubishi’s Sumiyoshi underground tunnels (pictured) should be presented to the public, with historically accurate descriptions of the types of workers who laboured there, including Koreans.

The language used on the outdoor plaques explaining the conditions faced by Koreans is similar to that used in the final World Heritage Site wording agreed to by the Korean and Japanese representatives. Here is the Mitsubishi Sumiyoshi tunnel description in English (it also is in Japanese and Korean, with phrasing in each language equal in content):

Mobilized Workers … Students, volunteers, and drafted workers were all mobilized and could be seen at work in various parts of the city. In the Sumiyoshi tunnels, operations related to the manufacture of armaments (torpedoes) were being carried out by mobilized workers under the supervision of the military. Around the tunnel construction site, dormitories were set up for those mobilized to work in the factory. There were also several quarters for construction workers. Many of the residents of these quarters were Korean. A number of the Koreans had been forcibly drafted, and they were made to engage in extremely hard labor, excavating the tunnels. They worked in three shifts; clearing away the debris after the tunnel was blasted, loading the loose earth and stones onto trolleys, as well as work outside the tunnels, such as loading the debris onto trucks to be carried away.

The latest World Heritage listing of these Japanese industrial sites will certainly fuel further debate. Most likely, criticism, protest and litigation on behalf of former Korean forced labourers will continue, with new support internationally when the full history becomes better known to the world at large—a history that does not end in 1910.

Main photo:
Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), site of the Hashima Coal Mine (David Palmer).

Share On:

Leave a Comment