Korean Forced Labour & Japan's Foreign Minister


An embarrassing ghost from World War II was present in Sydney last weekend, when Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso sat down with Alexander Downer and America’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their first meeting together. But of course, it went unmentioned.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso

Japan is now a valued ally in Canberra and Washington, but its aggressive imperial past still casts shadows over Asia. Among other bitter memories is Tokyo’s treatment of more than one million Asians whom it forced into slave-like labour across Japan. Thousands of these toiled in coal mines owned by Taro Aso’s family.

His link to this violation of human rights is aggravated by Japan’s failure to pay direct compensation to any survivors or their families. Equally disturbing is that a modern democracy like Japan could retain in an important office like foreign affairs a man with such connections.

Yet it is documented that about 12,000 Koreans were forced to work underground in appalling conditions of penury and malnutrition in collieries belonging to the Aso Mines company, in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, from the mid-1930s until 1945. The company is still owned by the family, and Aso, 65, was once its president.

This enforced displacement of Koreans, and hundreds of thousands from China, is rarely mentioned in the Japanese media, nor do politicians comment. Neither Aso nor company officials have consented to discuss the scandal, and Japan’s Foreign Ministry declined comment. Many Japanese remain unaware that it ever happened. The few who know often dismiss the forced labour as ‘voluntary.’

Aso cannot argue that a generation separates him from this family legacy. Indeed, his remarks since taking office last October demonstrate that he shares Japan’s unwillingness to atone for its imperialist expansion and foreign wars of aggression.

Also, well publicised recent remarks have displayed Aso’s insensitivity to Korean feelings, as well as expressing unabashed racial supremacy. Last year, he echoed a 1930s racist theme by describing Japan as ‘one nation, one civilisation, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on earth.’ He recently claimed that Koreans voluntarily adopted Japanese names, although Tokyo enforced such a law in what was its colony from 1910-45.

These comments so upset Japan’s neighbours, and other nations, that the New York Times in an editorial last month described them as ‘inflammatory’ under the headline: ‘Japan’s Offensive Foreign Minister.’ The forced labour issue, however, remained unmentioned.

Taro Aso ran the Aso Cement Company (as the former Aso Coal Mines was then called) in Fukuoka prefecture in Kyushu from 1973 until 1979, when he entered politics. During that time he never addressed its corporate legacy of Korean serf labour.

He remains connected to the family company today. In 2001 it entered into a joint venture with the French cement manufacturer, Lafarge, but continues under the management of his younger brother, Yutaka Aso. Last December, the French Ambassador in Tokyo presented Yutaka with the Legion d’Honneur at a ceremony where honoured guests included Foreign Minister Aso and his wife, Chikako.

It seemed a fitting tribute to a family steeped in the aristocratic traditions of Japan’s recent history. One Aso ancestor was a leading 19th century samurai and his great-grandfather, Takakichi Aso, founded the mining firm in 1872.

As the scion of landed gentry, Aso graduated from Gakushuin University, which traditionally educates Japan’s imperial family. A grandfather was Shigeru Yoshida, Prime Minister of Japan five times between 1946 and 1954, and an autocratic conservative who conducted a 1950s purge of ‘reds’ in the coal mining unions. Aso’s wife adds to family influence as the daughter of Zenko Suzuki, Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister from 1980-82.

There is even a royal link. Aso’s sister Nobuko married Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, the Emperor’s cousin. Tomohito recently hit the headlines over his opposition to the proposal to allow a woman to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. He suggested continuing the male line through concubines, an imperial tradition that would move Japan back several centuries.

The Aso connection to forced labour has been documented by three amateur historians in Fukuoka: Eidai Hayashi, Takashi Ohno, and Noriaki Fukudome. They present a shocking picture, most of it recorded in their various books.

Although the National General Mobilisation Law which forced all colonial subjects to work wherever it suited Japan was not passed until 1939, the three historians found that Korean labourers were being shipped to Aso mines in Japan well before that date. Precise numbers are unknown, but it was several thousands, especially after a strike of 400 miners at an Aso mine in 1932.

Kang Seong-hyang, the only known
Korean survivor of the Aso Coal Mines

In the years after 1939, the historians calculate that the number of Koreans working as forced labour in Japan swelled to over a million. Their figure is 1,120,000; Tokyo’s official number is 724,287.

The 12,000 Aso miners were paid a third less than Japanese labourers would have been. It was about 50 yen a month, but amounted to less than 10 yen after mandatory confiscations for food, clothes, and housing. All workers toiled underground for 15-hour days, seven days a week, with no holidays.

Housing was in dirty dormitory huts with six to seven tiny rooms. Single men lived and slept on a single, two-by-one-metre tatami mat. There was no heating or running water. Lavatories were in earthen pits. A three-metre high wooden fence topped with electrified barbed wire ringed the outside. Workers were prisoners, watched by police guards.

The police also kept statistics, which the historians obtained. In March of 1944, Aso mines had a total of 7996 Korean labourers of whom 56 had recently died, and a staggering 4919 had escaped. Across the prefecture, total fugitives amounted to 51.3 per cent, but at Aso Mines it was 61.5 per cent because conditions there were ‘even worse,’ said Fukudome. Most workers suffered malnutrition receiving only a handful of rice a month, supplemented by inferior cereals.

Another factor that causes grief is Japan’s indifference to the physical remains of those who died an important cultural issue in Asia, with its reverence for ancestors. In the Chikuho region, where the last Aso mine closed in the late 1960s, a Buddhist temple remains, but with only one priest tending hundreds of nameless graves.

Korean forced labour in Japan has been investigated since 2004 in Korea, after its Parliament formed the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilisation Under Japanese Imperialism. It has toured 234 cities in Korea, conducted hearings, heard witnesses, and described the Japanese policy as ‘atrocities.’

The Commission compiled a list of 2600 Japanese companies that exploited forced Korean labour, and would have knowledge of the remains of the dead. One prominently on the list: Aso Mines. An Aso company spokesman said the firm could not investigate the whereabouts of remains, adding that ‘even if we could,’ no records were available.

The Commission has yet to issue its report. With no compromise offered from Japan or the Aso company, the scandal continues unresolved. Meanwhile, the world is left with Japan’s Foreign Minister and his ‘sincere dealings’ over his nation’s unresolved war crimes. From his record there can be little expectation that he will clear the shame

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