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Another Look at the Wartime Korean Labor Issue with Japan

Koreans and Japanese need to overcome the past and join hands to meet the challenges of the future. Currently, the ball is in South Korea and its Supreme Court.



South Korean plaintiffs and supporters demonstrate, arguing they deserve more money from Japanese corporations for wartime labor in Japan. (©Sankei)

The Supreme Court of South Korea has delayed its decision on liquidating the assets of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel located in South Korea. 

The delayed liquidation order was to compensate Korean laborers who had been mobilized during WWII and sent to work at the two Japanese companies. The laborers claim they were not paid when they repatriated back to Korea after the war. 

In 2018, the Supreme Court of South Korea ruled in favor of the laborers and the case has since been on appeal and is currently overdue for a decision. 

There are many issues involved with this case that are of serious concern:  

South Korean newspapers report on South Korean Supreme Court case on wartime labor (©Sankei)

1. Wrong Defendants

The parties being held responsible are not the proper defendants. Common practice in wartime Japan was to place wages not directly paid to workers into their postal saving accounts. 

Japan’s system was one where every post office operated as a savings bank, providing people with ready access to their money throughout the country. This would have been especially essential for migrant workers. 

It is most likely that some Koreans repatriated back to Korea either did not retrieve their postal saving books prior to departure, had them confiscated by customs entering the country, or found them worthless in Korea. 

This was not a case of withheld wages by the companies.      

2. Value of Currency Changed

Japanese money became worthless after the surrender in 1945. The exchange rate of the Japanese yen up until the end of WWII was pegged at 4 Japanese yen to one United States dollar. After the end of the war, inflation immediately set in and the exchange rate went to 15 yen to the dollar, then 50, 270, and settled at 360 yen to one US dollar. 


This ratio was very advantageous for US military personnel assigned to Japan where even the lowest military pay, when converted to the Japanese yen, was many times higher than that of average Japanese salaries at the time. However, it was disastrous for creditors and to those who suddenly found their life savings were worthless.  

3. Proper Role of The Korean Government 

Plaintiffs (the Korean laborers) should seek settlement of this matter with the South Korean government. They should not involve Japan or the Japanese in any way. 

All issues between Korea and Japan, including those involving individuals, were resolved by a treaty between Korea and Japan in 1965. 

This issue of unpaid Korean workers is an internal Korean problem and should be resolved by the South Korean government.    

4. Korean Court’s Unusual Role

Most unusual is that the Supreme Court of South Korea apparently has the authority to arbitrarily override international agreements made by the government of Korea. 

Further, successive South Korean presidents have ignored international agreements entered into by their government. Evidently, South Korea is a nation that does not abide by the norms and rules of the international community.  

Former residents of Gunkanjima fact-check South Korean claims. (©Sankei)

Japanese Labor Practices Before Surrender

In wartime Japan, depositing wages into postal savings accounts was common practice. Whether the postal savings account books were given to the workers or held for safekeeping by the employer, once the wages were placed into the postal savings, the money was no longer under the control of the company. 

The postal deposit books were in the name of the workers. Any problems about access to the deposits should be taken up with the Government of Japan.

There was an incident at the war’s end of a Japanese immigration official having possession of several postal savings books belonging to Korean workers who were being repatriated to Korea. He had doubts about the Japanese governmental responsibilities for honoring payments outside Japan, and had confiscated the savings books of Koreans returning to Korea. 

Although plaintiffs in the legal actions may not be among them, this would evidence that Korean workers, like the Japanese, also had their wages deposited in postal savings and that workers did receive their postal saving books from employers. It was neither slave labor nor mobilization without pay. 

The article on the confiscated books did not mention their final disposition but it is highly improbable they were returned to the workers. 


While the details involved with the Korean laborers in the lawsuit are unknown, it is highly likely their pay went into postal savings like most other workers. 

Japanese Yen Lost Significant Value

Due to inflation, the Japanese yen became almost worthless soon after Japan’s surrender. Up to the end of WWII, the Japanese yen was equal to 4 yen for one US dollar. Soon after the end of the war, the exchange rate became 15 to 1, then immediately shot up to 50 to 1, then 270, and settled at 360 yen to one US dollar. 

Prior to the end of WWII, the average Japanese worker earned less than one hundred yen a month. A decent home could be purchased for a few thousand yen. 

Soon after the end of WWII, a pair of shoes was priced at more than the prewar cost of an ordinary home during the war. This is mentioned to let people know the immediate effect of inflation in Japan after her surrender. Japanese money became almost worthless. 

While current workers were then paid at new inflationary rates and did not suffer that greatly, old saving accounts became worthless overnight. Money held in deposits in postal savings accounts suffered the same fate. 

Normalization of Relations and Settlement of Claims

In June 1965, Japan and Korea signed the Treaty on Basic Relations and Settlement of Claims Between Japan and the Republic of Korea. Both parties confirmed that the problems concerning property, rights, and interests of both nations and their peoples have been settled completely and finally. 

For the South Korean court system to ignore international treaties entered by the nation defies understanding. It has done the same thing with the comfort women issue. It raises questions on Korea’s eligibility to enter into any contract with the international community of nations.  

South Korea's former president Park Geun-hye REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
South Korean former president Moon Jae-in, (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Shared Histories

Japan and Korea have intertwined histories from the ancient past. 

A few years ago, there was an immense popularity boom in Japan of all things Korean. This was brought to an abrupt halt by past Korean President Park Geun-hye with her acrimonious anti-Japan allegations, especially that of Korean comfort women being forced sex slaves, which is still believed by many people. 

Recently, a group of Korean women traveled to Germany to ask that comfort women statues blaming Japan be removed since the allegations were a hoax and not true. Park’s successor, the now past President Moon Jae In, continued the anti-Japan stance which further strained relations between the two nations.  

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Intertwined Future

The incumbent South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has not made any anti-Japan statements since assuming the presidency. Unlike his predecessors, he is apparently seeking improved relations with Japan. 

In recent years, Japan has withdrawn its hand of friendship which had been extended ever since the establishment of the Republic of Korea. The next move is up to Korea. Koreans must overcome the resentment against Japan for historical injustices and sufferings or need to feel morally superior to Japan.  

The Japan of today is not the Japan of pre-WWII. It is long past due for South Korea to take a realistic look at the future and join hands with Japan to meet the challenges which lie ahead. 


Author: Archie Miyamoto

The author is an American with a long history and unique fondness for both South Korea and Japan. Find other articles by him, including those related to the relationship and history between Japan and South Korea at this link.

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