The distortion of historical facts must not be allowed.
A case in point is the South Korean government’s recent letter to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, seeking nullification of the agency’s decision in 2015 to add “Japan’s Industrial Revolution in the Meiji Era” legacies to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list.
On June 15, the Japanese government opened the “Industrial Heritage Information Center” in Tokyo, introducing to the public Japan’s Meiji-era Industrial Revolution heritage consisting of 23 relevant sites.
Seoul has challenged the information on display for the Hashima Coal Mine on the now uninhabited island of Hashima, commonly known as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) because of its shape, in the city of Nagasaki. South Korea’s complaint is that the exhibit’s information about workers from the Korean Peninsula is inadequate.
South Korea alleges that the mining operations used inhumane forced labor by workers from the Korean Peninsula in the wartime era. This argument fails to reflect what really happened.
It was only natural that Shigeki Takizaki, director of the foreign ministry’s Asia and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, refuted Seoul’s position in a teleconference with his South Korean counterpart on June 24. He noted that Japan had “adequately addressed the matter and could not accept Seoul’s argument.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have also provided UNESCO a full explanation of Japan’s stand on the issue.
The information center does exhibit items that explicitly and properly show that labor conditions were harsh in the coal-mining operations at the Hashima Coal Mine during the wartime, as was the case with all mines in those days. The center also illustrates that workers in the mines on Gunkanjima included both Japanese and Korean.
It is unreasonable for South Korea to insist on imposing on UNESCO, which works to preserve important cultural assets of the world, its claims that are contrary to the historical facts. Presumably, Seoul’s posture is aimed at damaging Japan’s image in the international community through malicious political maneuvering.
The criticism by South Korea is unquestionably false.
It is true that there were people from the Korean Peninsula who worked at the coal mine from around September 1944 under the National Requisition Order, but they were not engaged in the kind of coerced labor claimed by Seoul. They were part of a legitimate wartime mobilization that applied to Japanese as well as Korean workers, who were paid wages and worked together under the same conditions.
More to the point, however, the list of Japan’s Industrial Revolution Heritage sites registered with the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage covers the period from 1850s when the Tokugawa shogunate and a few feudal domains embarked on the task of industrializing Japan through such industries as shipbuilding through trial and error, to 1910 when a certain level of industrialization had been achieved. The registration itself has nothing to do with coal mines shortly before the end of World War II.
Among other things, leaflets the South Korean government distributed to UNESCO with the aim of obstructing the registration included photos of Japanese workers in Hokkaido, with a caption saying they were workers forcibly recruited from the Korean Peninsula.
There were some problems on the part of the Japanese government, too. Just ahead of the UNESCO decision on the registration, Japan entered into a compromise deal with South Korea, committing to building an Industrial Heritage Information Center. We wonder if that kind of appeasement may have backfired. It should be kept in mind that doing too much in consideration of a foreign government could end up undermining Japan’s own national interests.
(Click here to read the editorial in its original Japanese.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun