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'Forced Labor' Photo Disseminated by South Korean Media is Actually Postwar Photo of a Japanese Coal Miner




South Korean media have been promoting a photograph of a man working in a coal mine, alleging it shows a Korean conscripted to work under horrendous conditions on "Gunkanjima" (Hashima island in Nagasaki Prefecture) during the war. However, on April 3, the photographer who took the controversial photograph debunked the claim and confirmed to the Sankei Shimbun that his photo actually shows a Japanese coal miner in a different location.   


The photograph has been widely disseminated in the South Korean media and by activists as alleged documentary evidence to back up claims of extensive use of Korean forced labor during World War II. The photographer, however, says he took the photo at a coal mine in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1961, long after the war was over.


The photo shows a shirtless coal miner lying flat in a claustrophobically narrow, low-roofed coal seam. He is using a pickaxe to chip away at the coalface. It was taken by well-known photographer Koichi Saito (84), who is an honorary member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society.


According to Saito, he snapped the photo of the miner in question when on a photojournalism trip through the extensive Chikuho coalfield in Fukuoka Prefecture in the summer of 1961. It was carried in the October 19 issue of the now discontinued weekly magazine Shin Shukan, and other media outlets.



Saito strongly affirms that the photo was taken 16 years after the end of the war and that the man in question “was Japanese.”


Many Korean media organizations and books have used this particular photograph as alleged evidence that Koreans were subjected to forced labor on Gunkanjima. A panel is devoted to it, for example, at the National Museum of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Occupation in Pusan, which was established to buttress South Korea's contention that Korean laborers who were mobilized by the Japanese authorities during the war were mistreated.


Just last year, the December 16 online edition of the influential South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo carried this same photograph to illustrate an article on forced deportation of workers from Korea to work in Japan. The caption read “Korean Engaged in Coal Mining.”


In all of these cases, the photo was used without Saito’s permission.


Saito discovered that his photo was being used in a manner that perverted the facts after the release of the South Korean movie “Gunkanjima” (The Battleship Island) in July 2017, an action film depicting an uprising by exploited Korean laborers working on the island. An acquaintance informed him about it.



“My photo shows a Japanese hard at work,” Saito says. “The South Koreans have used it as they like to advance their own arguments. What’s the use of even protesting?”


Professor Munehiro Miwa, who teaches business and economic history at Kyushu University, has done considerable work on the conscripted labor issue.


“The South Korean side starts with the image that the Korean workers brought to Japan were forced to work under atrocious conditions,” he explains. “So, based on that premise, without adequately verifying its background, they probably jumped at the chance to use it (the photograph).”


The photograph has been used as "proof" in the ongoing controversy between South Korea and Japan over the “deportation for forced labor.” However, it should be noted that on March 21, South Korea’s Ministry of Education admitted the true origin of the coal miner photograph, confirming that it was actually a photo of a Japanese worker. At the same time, the Ministry also signaled that it was ready to revise primary school textbooks that use the photograph as an illustration of “forced labor.”


An article carried in the April 12, 2017 morning edition of the Sankei Shimbun rebutted many of the South Korean charges about the conditions Korean workers labored under on Gunkanjima. The same article revealed that the photo of the mine worker in question had been carried in a book titled A Pictorial History of Chikuho Over a Century (Kyodo Shuppansha, 2006). (RELATED ARTICLE: Lie Debunked: Historical Data Show No Forced Labor for Koreans)



The accompanying caption in the book stated that the photograph portrayed what mining was like in the middle of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Later reporting clarified that the photographer was Koichi Saito and the photo dated from 1961.



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



Author: Shimpei Okuhara, The Sankei Shimbun



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  1. WisdomandReason

    August 1, 2019 at 6:07 am

    It's not a first time Koreans have done this. You will find a pattern of trying to find old pictures from 1910 to 1945 that can validate Korean side as being a victim. They'll even take pictures from China and say it was in Korea.

  2. FronTierFrank

    May 15, 2019 at 1:30 am

    Are you saying that the Koreans aren't smart enough to choose legitimate physical proofs to substantiate their claims such as 'wartime labor,' the most atrocious, heinous act committed by any colonial power in history? This is quite shocking, especially for the South Korean gov't to later admit the origins of the photo. Will this be a new trend so that the nation may begin to command a little respect in the international community? Probably not.

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