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‘Battleship Island’: Korean Film on Wartime Laborers Criticized for Being ‘Divorced from Reality’




Criticism of the Korean film Battleship Island (directed by Ryoo Seung-wan) has been increasing. The film is set on the coal mine on Hashima Island, which is part of the city of Nagasaki. The island itself is popularly known as “Battleship Island” because of its resemblance to a battleship when viewed from a distance. A Korean man who actually worked on the island as a conscripted laborer has pointed out to the Korean media that the film is exaggerated and divorced from reality. Former residents of the island have also issued a statement disputing the film.



Choi Jangsub, 87, pointed out issues in the film. According to an interview with Hankook ilbo online, Choi took up an invitation from the Korean government and visited Battleship Island on July 26th together with approximately 50 other conscripted laborers or their survivors.


After the visit, Choi said, “It seems that there are imaginary parts that have been added to the movie.”


As an example, he offered the case of the daughter of the band leader who makes her appearance in the film. “I never saw a young girl like that on Battleship Island,” he stated.  In the newspaper article, a reader commented, “Once conscription of labor had started, the Koreans taken were almost all juvenile boys.”



With respect to a scene in the movie where the Koreans killed by United States bombing are thrown in a pile and the bodies burned, Choi said that this was simply not the case. He recalled: “There were a good number who died while working at Hashima, but the Japanese gave proper and respectful treatment to the bodies and returned the remains to Korea. If nothing else, they were quite kind in this respect.”


In the film there is a scene where the Korean conscripted workers join forces, fight with the Japanese, and escape, but Choi stated unequivocally that this was “completely impossible.” He went on express his dissatisfaction: “The film should have been a bit more detached. It should have stuck to what the Japanese and the Koreans actually did.”



“The Association of Hashima Island Residents for the Pursuit of Historical Fact” also issued a statement protesting the content of the film. Their statement criticized the film, saying, “Even if we accept this film as fiction, we cannot permit turning fabrications divorced from reality into a film.”


They went on to call for an appropriate response to “that part of the radical activists and movement types who are agitating in order to stir up hostility between the people of Korea and Japan.”



This statement was presented to Lee Joon-gyu, the Korean ambassador to Japan, and to Oh Gongtae, head of the Korean Residents Union in Japan.  The statement was also released to the media.


The film shows Koreans being beaten by the Japanese Military Police, but the statement from the residents group rebuts this, saying, “There were only two ordinary policemen stationed on the island.” Further, some of the Koreans had families and children and the children attended school with Japanese. “It is not the case that children were made to work.”


In the film it is stressed that the Koreans were forced to labor in galleries more than 1 km underground, but the residents group noted that “the deepest galleries were just over 710 meters underground. There was a ventilation system, and drinking water was provided. It was surprisingly tolerable in the galleries, certainly not some sort of near-inferno.”


In addition, there was no large scale killing of Koreans due to American air raids. There was, in fact, only one air raid on July 31st, 1945, and it was the power station and related facilities that were attacked.


The statement goes on to appeal for “working together to give future generations a correct record of Hashima and to build friendship rather than mutual hostility.”



Battle Ship Island, with its reportedly substantial production costs, was released at the end of July. Although it garnered substantial attention at is premier, it is said that it is facing a struggle to attract subsequent viewers.


It was discovered that to drum up support for the release in the United States, the film’s producers used a misleading photograph.


At a press conference on his 100th day in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in indicated his belief that “individual rights of redress” remain for those who were conscripted as laborers during the period when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese rule.



The government of Japan protested to the Korean government on August 18th, saying: “The issue of conscripted labor was settled by the 1965 Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation.”


The Japanese government further stated, “It is our understanding that there is no change in the Korean government position [that is matter has been settled by the 1965 treaty].”



Senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are saying that Moon’s effort to rekindle the conscripted labor issue is “just something we have to put up with.”




(Click here, here and here to read the original reports in Japanese.)




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1 Comment

  1. FronTierFrank

    September 3, 2017 at 5:26 am

    The Japanese gov't, namely MOFA, may never realize how completely inept and disgraceful it continues to be in diplomacy. This poor excuse for a film can only have propaganda value owing to Japan's once-again pusillanimous concession to allow the phrase 'forced to work' as part of the official description for Battleship Island (Hashima Island) by UNESCO. Playing petty semantic games nobody can decipher such as in this case will further tarnish Japan by continuous slanderous attacks and coordinated spin from those who take advantage of the country's inability to express herself effectively. 'Forced to work' has created an opening to interpret it as not only 'forced labor without pay,' but more damagingly, 'slave labor.' These are the words being utilized in the movie reviews in the West - just do an online search and find out.

    So now you have 'sexual slavery' and 'forced labor' or 'slave labor' that Japan has allegedly engaged in. No, this is not “just something [people at MOFA] have to put up with.” Not if you begin to learn how to articulate clearly based on historical facts with some courage.

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