By Shin Hee-seok
Hiromura Gakurai was a prison guard at the Hintok work camp along the Thailand-Burma "death railway," infamous for the extremely high human toll on the Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and local Asian slave laborers during World War II.
After the war, he was tried and sentenced to death by an Australian military court for inhumane treatment of POWs but commuted to 20 years' imprisonment and released on parole in 1956.
Hiromura's case may not stand out among over 5,700 war criminals in the Asia-Pacific region ― except he was a sharecropper's son named Lee Hak-rae from Korea, then under Japanese colonial rule. And he is not alone: 148 Koreans and 173 Taiwanese were convicted as war criminals, of which 23 Koreans and 26 Taiwanese were executed.
Most Korean war criminals were lowly prison guards ranking below buck privates. On paper, they were "volunteers"; in practice, certain military conscription or industrial slave labor awaited as an alternative. Some 3,000 Koreans manned the Japanese POW camps in Southeast Asia.
In flagrant contravention of the official assurances to the Allies to treat their POWs in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the Japanese authorities subjected them to brutal labor and beating while depriving food, medicine and clothes.
The mortality rate for the Commonwealth and American POWs in Nazi Germany was less than 4 percent; in Imperial Japan, it was a whopping 27 percent. The outraged Allied officials made it a priority to bring those responsible to book.
Unfortunately, in the eye of the Allied prosecutors and judges, Lee was a subject of the Japanese emperor like any other with a Japanese name (forced upon him by the despised governor-general).
Most POW abuse cases were based on affidavits by the repatriated POWs without cross examination (to be fair, it would have been logistically difficult if not impossible to summon thousands of witnesses as in ordinary trials).
Remarkably, the prosecution accused Lee of being a camp commandant or alternatively claimed that "by reason of his strong personality he usurped that position and actually ran the camp."
Although Lee was certainly guilty of beating POWs, it was a daily routine in the Imperial Japanese Army, and he too was his superiors' punch bag.
Regarding the more serious accusation of systematic slave labor and denial of life essentials, it was the outcome of Tokyo's POW policy, of which Lee, a hapless colonial, had no say.
Lee's defense counsel pleaded the court thus: "He himself is one of the sacrifices of the war. He was forced to serve in the Japanese Army … To have heavy sentence to this pitiable Korean is a profanation of the law." The plea went unheard.
Six decades later, a group of Koreans and Japanese gathered on a pleasant October weekend at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo to mourn the executed war criminals.
The two sides did not seem at ease with each other. The address by the Japanese representative dwelled upon the recent earthquake tragedy and the need to pull together as a nation. The Korean counterpart began his with the condemnation of Japan's war of aggression that turned them into war criminals.
Following the end of Allied occupation in 1952, the Japanese government resumed the payment of benefits to its convicted war criminals that had been banned by the Allies, but excluded the Korean and Taiwanese ones, having unilaterally deprived them of their Japanese nationality in 1952.
In fact, Japan cut all benefits to the hundreds of thousands of former colonial veterans from Korea and Taiwan in stark contrast to the practice of other past colonial powers such as the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. So much for the samurai code of honor.
Even after their release, Lee and his colleagues could not return home, where they had been labeled "Japanese collaborators" because of their war-crimes convictions. To the Japanese government and public, they were unwelcome "garlic-smelling Koreans."
Stranded in an alien land, some killed themselves in despair or ended their lives in a mental asylum. The others eked out a living through hard work. One by one, they died leaving Lee as one of the last remaining survivors.
After the mourning service, the attendants went for lunch together. When asked if he thinks Japan had waged a war of aggression, a surviving Japanese war criminal pondered for a while and then replied that it was difficult to answer ― an unsurprising response in a nation that still cannot come to terms with its war past.
In contrast, Lee admits that regardless of the circumstances, he bore responsibility for the inhumane treatment of the prisoners. In 1991 he visited Australia to deliver his personal apology to Lt. Col. Dunlop, a surviving Hintok POW.
"Mr. Lee," writes Prof. Utsumi Aiko of Keisen University, "came to accept that he was a wrongdoer as well as a victim."
In 2006 a report by the truth commission set up by the Korean government found that 83 Korean prison guards including Lee were victims of forced mobilization exonerating them from the charge of Japanese collaboration. It was a belated but meaningful victory.
Lee, 86, is now pushing to pass a symbolic compensation legislation in the Japanese Diet. He and the surviving family members demand Japan's apology for making them work as prison guards in cruel and impossible conditions and abandoning them after the war. "This will be the final task of my life," he said.
Shin Hee-seok studies international law at Yonsei University in Seoul. He was recently discharged as first lieutenant of the Republic of Korea Air Force.