Lie Debunked: Historical Data Show No Forced Labor for Koreans

 

(First of 3 Parts)

 

 

There is a widely accepted view in Korea that, under Japanese rule, mobilized Koreans were made to work like “slaves” in poor conditions at domestic coal mines and elsewhere. They were paid little to nothing. There are sectors in the international community that compare it with the forced labor of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

 

This is a one-sided view, if not an outright lie.

 

No less than a Korean researcher debunks it with data.

 

Lee Woo-youn, 50, a researcher at the Nakseongdae Economic Research Institute, studies how Japanese rule influenced the modernization of the Korean Peninsula. He investigated the issue of forced labor, and went over materials from before the end of the war.

 

He believes that studies, which ignored the realities of wage payment at that time, were inaccurate. What were the wages of the Koreans who worked in coal and metal mines? How different were those wages from the wages of the Japanese laborers who also worked in the mines? Using mainly materials from coal mines and coal industry trade organizations, Lee painstakingly investigated the working conditions of Koreans in Japan.

 

Lee pulled average data from the Japan Mining Association’s 1940 Survey Report on Korean Laborers to analyze the working conditions at 46 major domestic coal mines.

 

He calculated that an average of 43.5% of workers’ salaries could be freely used as pocket money after subtracting food expenses, taxes, and forced savings designed to prevent workers from wastefully spending their pay.

 

At that time, both the government and the coal companies recommended saving and sending money to workers’ families who were still in Korea. However, some workers were devoted to gambling and to buying alcohol, food, and clothing.

 

These accounts highlight the fact that these were condition very different from “slave labor,” the notion that has taken root in Korea.

 

What about the wage gap between Korean and Japanese workers?

 

Under the labor mobilization in force for Koreans, salaries were paid even for “recruitment,” which carried penalties of fines and imprisonment if refused.

 

Furthermore, through a vice minister’s notice and a Cabinet decision, the government had requested domestic employers to treat Korean and Japanese laborers with all possible parity.

 

Lee could find no big disparities in the wage payment tables, even at individual coal mines. In 1942, at the Hitachi coal mine in Ibaraki Prefecture, the average daily income for Korean workers was 2.42 yen, which was slightly above the 2.39-yen average daily salary for Japanese workers. Between January and July, 1945, the average salary for both Korean and Japanese workers at Meiji Steel’s Akaike Coal Mine in Fukuoka Prefecture was 4.82 yen.

 

In late March this year, Lee published his findings in Kyushu University’s Energy History Research Journal (no. 32) under the title “The Wage and Ethnic Gap for Korean Coal and Metal Miners Mobilized to Wartime Japan.”

 

Lee concludes that there was no large wartime wage gap between Japanese and Korean mines, and therefore no wage discrimination.

 

The paychecks for Korean workers

 

Historical Facts Wouldn’t Lie

 

So where did the notion come from that Korean laborers were made to work like slaves in the coal mines?

 

Lee’s research revealed a complicated calculation method for paying wages. It was difficult for Korean workers to understand this in Japanese, thus creating the potential for misunderstandings on the wage gap issue between Korean workers and their senior Japanese coworkers.

 

Furthermore, Lee points out that the impetus behind the “forced recruitment” theory came in 1965, when Park Kyung-sik published Record of Forced Recruitment of Koreans, which continues to be the dominant academic theory.

 

In his book, Park replaced the phrases in use during the war, “recruitment” and “labor mobilization,” with the phrase “forced recruitment,” thus succeeding in pushing the issue into wider territory.

 

Park claimed that the apprenticeship pay for Korean workers was less than that of Japanese workers, and therefore concluded that “ethnic discrimination” was to blame. He did not take into consideration the number of years of continuous employment.

 

For example, Park cited data from a 1942 wage survey of a coal mine in Hokkaido, which showed that 82.3% of Japanese workers were paid more than 50 yen per month, while only 25% of Koreans received the same amount.

 

However, 57.2% of the Japanese workers had two or more years of service, as opposed to just 10.7% of Korean workers. Coal miners were paid proportional to their daily individual output at the mines. Lee argues that a worker’s length of service is reflected in his work efficiency.

 

In fact, most of the materials that Lee used were compiled by “forced recruitment advocates.” Lee argues in the Sankei interview: “The data collected by Park et al. not only do not back up their arguments, but actually reveal historical facts completely at odds with their preconceived notions. As an economist, [I] do not hide [the historical facts].”

 

Not Discrimination

 

Lee also focused on the working environment of Koreans, which he summarized in his December 27, 2015, report, “The Wartime Mobilization of Korean Laborers in Japan and the Working Conditions in Coal Mines.”

 

Of all the Korean workers mobilized between 1939 and 1944, approximately half were sent to coal mines. The majority of these worked underground. About 60% of Japanese miners worked underground, while more than 90% of Korean miners worked underground. There are some who point to these figures to argue that this was intentional ethnic discrimination.

 

Lee disagrees.

 

“This was the natural result of satisfying the demand for coal mining labor following the loss of Japanese youth,” he said.

 

In addition, Lee sheds light on the working conditions in the mines. An original source for the “forced recruitment” theorists is the Institute for the Science of Labour’s Survey Report on Working Conditions for Korean Laborers, which focuses on 11 mines in Kyushu and Hokkaido. Lee emphasizes that one should pay close attention to the testimonies that there were hardly any cases where Koreans worked separately in the mines, and that in most cases the Koreans worked alongside the Japanese miners.

 

Under the division of labor, skilled Japanese workers extracted coal and inexperienced Korean workers gathered it up. According to the Survey Report, a coal mine in Hokkaido determined that, “the level has not been attained at which Koreans may be assigned to one job site. Also, choosing a leader for them causes trouble among subordinates.” This was so because many of the Koreans mobilized to work in the coal mines were farmers.

 

Lee concludes that the common belief that Koreans were discriminated against and intentionally assigned to dangerous, inferior jobs is not accurate.

 

‘Groundbreaking Research’

 

Kyushu University professor Munehiro Miwa cheered after coming across Lee’s paper as “ground-breaking research, which completely dismantles Park Kyung-sik’s research.”

 

Miwa and other researchers, who are accomplished experts in mine labor, often refrained from arguing against researchers like Park, who subscribe to the “forced recruitment” narrative. Miwa and others felt it better to let sleeping dogs lie on this particular point.

 

Miwa also analyzed many of the statistics. He stated that “there were no ethnically discriminatory wage arrangements.”

 

However, Miwa says that Korea’s criticism of Japan over labor mobilization will continue despite the findings in Lee’s paper.

 

“Even in academic circles,” Miwa said, “Korea tends to be dominated by moralistic ideology. Lee’s research can be as sound as you please—[but] if it differs from [Park’s] claims, then Korean academics may just say that the materials themselves are wrong. The act of manipulating history is the act of mocking those who lived in the past.”

 

 

Main contributors: Takashi Arimoto, Shinpei Okuhara, Makiko Takita, and Takao Harakawa

 

 

This article was first published at the Sankei Shimbun on April 10, 2017.

 

(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)

 

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