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Japan fails to recognize Korean victims of forced labor

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The Industrial Heritage Information Center in Tokyo, which introduces 23 sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution. Contrary to the Japanese government's earlier promise to UNESCO and the international community, the exhibition fails to recognize the Korean victims who were forced to work at some of the sites during World War II. / Yonhap
The Industrial Heritage Information Center in Tokyo, which introduces 23 sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution. Contrary to the Japanese government's earlier promise to UNESCO and the international community, the exhibition fails to recognize the Korean victims who were forced to work at some of the sites during World War II. / Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

Japan is still refusing to acknowledge its wartime atrocities, with its newly opened UNESCO facility linked to its use of forced labor during World War II failing to commemorate its victims.

In response, the Korean government plans to review all available countermeasures, including filing a complaint with UNESCO against Japan, while issuing a statement expressing regret over the situation. In addition, non-government-level efforts have also been launched to protest the Shinzo Abe administration's flawed perception of history.

Japanese Ambassador to Korea Koji Tomita arrives at the foreign ministry in Seoul, Monday, after the ministry summoned him in protest against Japan's failure to recognize wartime forced labor victims at the Industrial Heritage Information Center. / Yonhap
Japanese Ambassador to Korea Koji Tomita arrives at the foreign ministry in Seoul, Monday, after the ministry summoned him in protest against Japan's failure to recognize wartime forced labor victims at the Industrial Heritage Information Center. / Yonhap
Twenty-three sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015, including seven where 33,400 Koreans were conscripted. It includes Hashima Island, known as "Battleship Island" in Korea, where it is believed between 500 and 800 Koreans were forced to work between 1943 and 1945; 122 of them died.

Considering the outcry from Korea and other relevant Asian countries over the designation, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee called on Japan to prepare an interpretive strategy that allows an understanding of the "full history of each site" and Tokyo agreed to take such steps, planning to remember the victims by establishing an information center.

Upon the pledge, Japan opened the Industrial Heritage Information Center, Monday, but it failed to recognize the Korean victims of forced labor on the island, only featuring exhibits celebrating the country's industrial accomplishments during the Meiji era. It plays video clips with testimonials from people who worked at Japanese factories, including claims there was no forced labor or discrimination against Korean people.

During a tour of the center for Korean correspondents in Tokyo, Sunday, on the eve of the opening, a guide only said all the laborers at the time were "victims of circumstance," whether they were Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese, according to Yonhap News Agency. The center also provided Korean correspondents with a 72-page book on the heritage of Meiji Industrial Revolution and another 21-page booklet, but neither makes any mention of forced labor as well.

In response to Japan's failure to recognize the Korean victims of wartime forced labor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Koji Tomita, June 15, to meet with Second Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho, who expressed displeasure at the way Japan handled the matter.

In addition, the ministry issued a statement criticizing Japan's decision.

"The government expresses its strong protest over the fact that the contents of the exhibition at Japan's Industrial Heritage Information Center in Tokyo, which was made public on June 15, show that the Japanese government neither implemented the recommendation made by the World Heritage Committee (WHC) nor took the follow-up measures that it promised," ministry spokesman Kim In-chul said.

"In particular, the Japanese government had promised to establish an information center as a measure to remember the victims who were forced to work. It is deeply concerning and disappointing that no efforts to pay tribute to the victims are evident at the newly opened center."

A ministry official said, Tuesday, "The government is considering sending a letter to UNESCO to protest Japan's failure to acknowledge the forced labor and sincerely fulfill the promise that it made to Korea and the international community at the time of inscription by exhibiting materials at the center commemorating the victims."

In addition, Korea plans to raise the issue at the 44th session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in November.

The Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK), which promotes Korea's history and culture overseas, has started a petition to raise the issue on the global stage, urging UNESCO to thoroughly monitor Japan's follow-up measures and to make specific correction requests.

"In order to faithfully convey the entire history, UNESCO must demand Japan state the role of the heritage of the Industrial Revolution in the World War II era," VANK said in its petition posted on global petition website Change.org.

"In order to make sure that the entire history is faithfully conveyed, UNESCO must request for Japan to disclose the fact that there was forced labor and to establish the information center on the forced labor site, not in Tokyo."

Japanese activist Tomohiro Shinkai said that the center is at the heart of many issues, including the Japanese government's habitual distortion of history.

"The first problem was the opening ceremony for the center. The Japanese government claimed to have built the center to remember forced labor victims from the Korean Peninsula, but the ceremony had no victims or relatives of their bereaved families attending," Shinkai said in a column posted on the website of Korea.net, the official multi-language website of the Korean government.

"Though many testimonies remain on persecution of or discrimination against the victims, the center's attitude is one of constant denial. Koko Kato's comment that visitors should judge what happened despite the center providing an arbitrary and one-sided view is also extremely irresponsible and inappropriate."

Kato is an executive director of Japan's National Congress of Industrial Heritage.

Shinkai added: "Japan must objectively face history and reflect on its past wrongdoings. It should take a closer look at the truth behind the forced labor victims, whom the country has hidden behind the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, the Japanese government has consistently distorted and hid the truth instead of facing history. This attitude is reflected in the information center."

Japan's failure to acknowledge its wartime atrocities at the center was not entirely unexpected.

In its first conservation status report in 2017, Japan failed to include terms such as "forced labor" while claiming instead that the "exhibitions would aid the understanding that people from the Korean Peninsula made contributions at Japan's industrial sites."

During its annual meeting in Bahrain in July 2018, UNESCO once again urged Japan to fulfill its promise and submit another conservation status report by Dec. 2, 2019.

In April, Kim Jung-han, director-general for the Korean foreign ministry's Asian and Pacific affairs, had a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart Shigeki Takizaki and urged the country deliver on its earlier pledge to take steps to enable the understanding that many Koreans were brought "against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions" in the 1940s at some of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Given that the forced labor matter is a contentious issue between the neighboring countries, the latest debate may further worsen the situation.

Currently, Korean courts are set to liquidate assets seized from Japanese companies, which benefitted from the use of forced labor during WWII, following rulings ordering those firms to pay 100 million won ($82,000) in compensation to Korean victims.

However, the Japanese government has warned of economic retaliation if the assets are liquidated.

In addition, the two nations are at odds over Japan's export restrictions, also in relation to the forced labor issue. Last July, the Abe administration abruptly imposed restrictions on exports of three key industrial materials critical for Korea's chip and display industries in an apparent retaliation over the forced labor rulings.

Despite Korea's repeated requests to normalize their bilateral ties, Japan has refused to accept them. As a result, Korea has decided to reopen its complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding Japan's export curbs.


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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