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Information Center in Tokyo Remains at Heart of Dispute over ‘Hell Island’

“Instead of pointing out those errors, we think it is important to release primary materials,” says the Center’s director, hoping individuals will take time to consider the facts.

Ruriko Kubota

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 A year has passed since the Industrial Heritage Information Center (IHIC) was launched in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Yet, South Korea has not ceased its criticism of the portrayal of Hashima Island in Nagasaki.

The center, which promotes Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution, has been rebuked over Hashima Island. South Korea claims that “many Koreans were forcibly mobilized (to work in coal mines) and died” there during the 1930s and 1940s.

The criticism continues despite the efforts of IHIC Managing Director Koko Kato, who has gathered over 100,000 primary materials, including testimonies from former residents of Hashima Island. Nevertheless, the center has become a focal point for history-related disputes between Japan and South Korea.

Gunkanjima image at Japan’s new Industrial Heritage Information Center, informing on Japan’s Meiji-era industrial revolution and beyond.

At the Front Line of Anti-Japanese Sentiment

Six years have passed since Hashima Island was approved as a world heritage site in 2015, yet the IHIC continues to be targeted by the South Korean government. About 1 week after the IHIC opened to the public in June 2020, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha sent a letter to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, saying that the IHIC’s explanations concerning people from the former Korean Peninsula were insufficient. 

Kang Kyung-wha asked Azoulay to consider removing Hashima Island’s world heritage site status.

The then- foreign minister also asked for greater cooperation from Japan. No action was taken in 2020 due to COVID-19, but an online meeting has been scheduled.

In preparation for the meeting, UNESCO plans to send an inspector to the IHIC, following discussions with Japan.

“I want UNESCO to judge using accurate information. Japan’s and South Korea’s opinions on the issue are completely different, but Japan is a sovereign state. Japan’s sovereignty is a factor when judging history,” says Kato.

Notably, the IHIC has included work from Japan-based academic Park Kyung-sik, who spread his “forced mobilization” theory (on Hashima’s coal mines) across Japan and South Korea.

However, the voices and documents on the “truth about Hashima Island” provided by former island residents overwhelms the stance of South Korea.

As a leading researcher in the field of world industrial heritage, Kato promoted Meiji-era industrial revolution sites to gain world heritage status.

The main period of focus was 1850 to 1910, and sites related to recruitment on the Korean Peninsula that were under Japanese rule (1940s) were exempt. However, Hashima Island – which was purchased for its coal mines by Mitsubishi Mining in 1890 – was included, and subsequently became a world heritage site.

However, this has also resulted in the IHIC becoming a controversial site, from a historical perspective.

“For about 6 years (since the world heritage moment), we have collected all kinds of primary materials, and released information such as testimonies by former islanders in Japanese, English, and Korean.” 

“There are some errors in the anti-Japan activists’ understanding of history,” Kato says. “Instead of pointing out those errors, we think it is important to release primary materials.” 

However, in recent times, the South Korean media has criticized Kato, the IHIC, and other affiliated organizations, saying that “they are a front for conservative groups in Japan.”

There are 1,300 documents and photos on Hashima Island on display at the IHIC. But in total, the center has more than 100,000 items – donated by individuals and companies since the center opened. Many of the documents are related to the Korean Peninsula, and are said to “shine a light on the darkness of history.”

Entrance to the Industrial Heritage Information Center

RELATED: Spotlight on Japan’s Industrial Heritage, Wartime Past at Newly-Opened Information Center

NHK’s Fabricated “Greenless Island” Documentary

In 1955, NHK made a documentary on Hashima Island that turned out to be fabricated in that some of the shots were of coal mines in a different location. This revelation came to light following testimonies made by former islanders.

The island became famous due to footage of workers wearing loincloths and mining for coal in narrow spaces. South Korean TV stations used the footage, highlighting “the cruel labor conditions on ‘Hell Island’ endured by people from the Korean Peninsula.” The imagery was also used by a history museum in Busan, South Korea, becoming a symbol of forced labor.

Kato says that she found out about the “Greenless Island” documentary by accident. A cameraman told her about it. 

It became apparent that former islanders had looked at the coal-mine footage, commenting: “That is obviously not Hashima!”

The interior of the mines looked totally different to those in Hashima. The heights of the coal layers were different, and the workers were not wearing the cap lamps that were worn in Hashima. The workers in the TV program were wearing loincloths but in Hashima they wore work clothes. All of this violated the safety regulations of the day.

It is possible that NHK avoided filming in coal mines in Hashima due to the dangerous gaseous conditions, and used safer mines instead. However, the shots of nearly-naked workers gave the false impression to the world that workers from the Korean Peninsula had undergone forced labor on “Hell Island.”

On November 20, 2020, a group of former islanders demanded a truthful account of history and submitted a written protest to NHK. They pointed out the untruthful nature of the program, demanded an investigation as well as the truth, and also a report on the mistakes.

NHK denied any wrongdoing, stating: “It has not been confirmed that a different coal mine was used for the program.”

However, since spring 2021, the Japanese politicians Shigeharu Aoyama and Hiroshi Yamada have continued to ask questions about the issue in the Diet. This led to the NHK President Terunobu Maeda promising that the matter would be investigated. But at the same time, he refused to involve any former islanders in the process.

RELATED: Fake Images, False Claims: Gunkanjima Natives Fact-Check South Korea on Forced Labor

“In South Korea, there is the extreme view that conscripted workers were prisoners of war. A West German newspaper once wrote that ‘1,000 people were trapped and killed’ (in Hashima). NHK has to take responsibility for creating this distorted image. We want NHK to apologize,” says Kato.

Former residents of Hashima Island

Research Book Series 

In March 2021, the National Congress of Industrial Heritage released a series of research books on the truth about wartime Korean labor. The editor is Tsutomu Nishioka, who is also a guest professor at Reitaku University, and the writing team includes two historians and two lawyers.

“In terms of historical facts, what exactly was conscripted labor? How was the issue handled after the war? In October 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation, but why did it do it? We have written about all of this in our research books,” says Nishioka.

RELATED: [Wartime Laborers] series, at this link.

According to Kanji Katsuoka, who has analyzed research books on the issue of conscripted labor, 109 out of 1,357 literary sources describe the labor as not being “forced mobilization” or “forced labor,” whereas the vast majority describe it as “forced mobilization.” 

It is thought that the General Association of Korean residents in Japan have spread the notion that the labor was “forced mobilization.”

“History is something that looks for a rationale. If researchers evolve, then certain historical outlooks change. I believe that it is my duty to contribute materials from the center that can be used for further research,” says Kato.

This process of verification has only just begun. 

(Find access to The Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Ruriko Kubota, Senior Staff Writer 

Ms Ruriko Kubota is a senior staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun Tokyo Headquarters office. She covers mainly Korean Peninsula issues as a political correspondent, international news editor and Seoul correspondent (2003-08). Her books include 'Kim Il Song 's secret instruction' and‘Han Gang Yottp telling the truth of DPRK Kim Joung Il ' 'Anti-Japanese tribalism and Japanese'. She was born in Tokyo, earned her bachelor's degree in economics at Seikei University, Tokyo. Studied at Yonsei University, Soeul in 1987, and at National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo in 1995.