Since it was given World Heritage Status by UNESCO in 2015, “Battleship Island” (Hashima) in Nagasaki has been a focal point of the anti-Japanese movement in Korea, connecting it to the conscription of Korean laborers during the Pacific War.
It is getting attention once again in Korea. It was discovered that to drum up support for the release in the United States of a film set on Battleship Island, producers resorted to use a misleading photograph.
“The Island of Hell” flashed across an electronic billboard in Times Square at the beginning of July. It was in reference to Battleship Island. For 15 seconds at a time, an image of a man digging coal is shown, along with the caption “120 were killed.”
On July 26, however, the Korean newspaper Chuo Nippo (Korea Joongang Daily) reported that a Korean professor who was involved in the production of the film had admitted that the striking photograph was completely unrelated to Battleship Island.
The worker in the photograph was not a conscripted laborer, as the Koreans claimed, but a Japanese. Moreover, the Japanese was not laboring at the undersea coal mine for which Battleship Island was the base, but at a completely different coal mine.
The Sankei Shinbun pointed out that the photograph “is from a mine in the Chikuho region of Fukuoka Prefecture and not from the Hashima mine.” It offered proof that the photograph used in the advertisement “dates from the mid-Meiji period and as such could not be a conscripted Korean.”
Seo Kyung Duk, a professor at Sungshin Women’s University who was involved in the production of both the film and the advertisement, admitted his error to the Chuo Nippo. He said: “I was unable to make a thorough verification and made an inadvertent mistake. It was only just this time that I learned that the worker in the photograph is a Japanese.”
Nonetheless, the film Battleship Island, directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, was released throughout Korea on July 26.
The film is set at the end of the Pacific War. The Japanese military plans to hide the existence of 400 conscripted Koreans, who have been forced to perform hard labor at the mine by sealing them in the mine and blowing it up. The Koreans come together to plot a group escape to save themselves. Although the plot has no basis in historical fact, the director Ryoo has described it as “a work of fiction based on fact.” In addition to scenes of conscripted workers dying in the tunnels of the mine, there are numerous scenes depicting the barbarous killing of both Japanese and Chinese. In addition, there are scenes of Korean women being forcibly sent to Japanese brothels, and the desecration of Rising Sun Flag. Overall the film is a work that encourages anti-Japanese jingoism on the part of Koreans.
At the end of the film a subtitle appears, noting that in 2015 Battleship Island was registered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as one of the sites in Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution. It points out that, while the Japanese government has said it will take steps to commemorate the victims sometime this year, it has not done so. The political appeal made to viewers is quite strong.
In Korea, surviving conscripted laborers or their bereaved families have brought a series of court suits, seeking damages from Japanese companies. It is probable that the film will have an impact on public opinion with respect to the issue of conscripted laborers.
‘Work of Fiction’
In a press conference on the 26th of July, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga commented on the release on the same day in Korea of the film Battleship Island.
He observed: “The film is, as the director has said, a work of fiction by the director himself. I do not consider it a documentary film that reflects historical fact.”
When questioned about the possibility of a Japanese government protest, he limited his reply to saying, “Commenting on each of the points in a film is not something the government ought to be doing.”
He also emphasized, “The issue of property and claims between Japan and Korea including the issue of conscripted labor was completely and finally settled by the Japan-Korea Claims Agreement .”
The official saw no reason or necessity for Japan and Korea to take up the issue of conscripted labor. [Translator’s note: In English the full title of the claims agreement is Agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation. ]
In another press conference on the same day, Press Secretary Morio Maruyama said: “Japan and Korea are in the process of striving to develop a relation oriented to the future. The film cannot but have a chilling effect on those efforts.”
Takahiro Namura is the Sankei Shimbun Seoul bureau chief.