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

Both Japanese and people from the Korean Peninsula worked in the coal mines in the war era, risking their lives. Now there is a museum to share the facts.





The Japanese government opened a new Industrial Heritage Information Center in Shinjuku ward, Tokyo, on June 15.


The center introduces an overview of “Japan’s Industrial Revolution Heritage in the Meiji Era,” designated as World Cultural Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The exhibits use photos and videos to explain the development of Japan’s heavy industries since the mid-19th century, which formed the basis for transforming Japan into one of the world’s major economies.


Written testimonies about the lives of people from the Korean Peninsula during World War II are also on display. Some of the exhibits show the reality of Koreans in wartime Japan, working at the Hashima coal mine on the Island of Hashima ー commonly known as “Gunkanjima” (Battleship Island) ー in Nagasaki prefecture. 


South Korea often calls this island “Jigokujima,” meaning “Hell Island,” and alleges that Koreans were forcibly recruited to work for the mine and subjected to brutal treatment. The items on display, however, stand as proof of realities that are different from the allegations of abuse. 




The information center is permanently installed in the annex of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Building No. 2. The main exhibits are divided into five categories: the early development period of Japan’s heavy industries; shipbuilding; iron and steel; coal mining; and the evolution to an industrialized country.


Photographs and expert interviews introduce how Japan, which initially lacked even the technology for repairing Western-style ships, grew rapidly into an industrialized country in only half a century, gaining for example the capability for large-scale shipbuilding at facilities in Nagasaki. A video recounting the process of registering the locations as UNESCO World Heritage sites is also shown.


Shortly before the World Cultural Heritage registration in July 2015, South Koreans, including then President Park Geun Hye, reacted sharply, arguing that some sites, such as Gunkanjima, were the scene of “inhumane forced labor” of people from the Korean Peninsula.


In response, the Japanese government explained why it rejected the South Korean argument that “There were many people from the Korean Peninsula who were taken to Japan against their will and had to work under stringent circumstances [during the wartime].” 



However, the government statement added its intention “to take adequate measures to remember the victims, including Japanese, who worked under harsh labor conditions amidst the war.”


Taking these concerns into account, items on display include a copy of the National Requisition Order of 1939, an imperial edict which applied to the mandatory recruitment of Japanese as well as people from the Korean Peninsula, in addition to documentation of the return of Koreans to the peninsula after the war. 


The National Congress of Industrial Heritage Council, the general incorporated foundation that runs the information center, spent more than four years interviewing nearly 70 former residents of the presently uninhabited Battleship Island, along with former employees of the now-defunct Miike coal mine in Fukuoka prefecture. Yet, no evidence was found of any abuse of people from the Korean Peninsula.


Yoichi Nakamura, 82, who moved to Hashima, the Battleship Island, in 1947 and currently serves as a guide at the information center, commented on the South Korean allegations. “Both Japanese and people from the Korean Peninsula went to work in the coal mines, risking their lives. I have never come across talk that Korean workers were subjected to abuse there, and have found no one who witnessed any abuse. It is unfortunate to hear things that run counter to the truth,” he said.


Due to continuing precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Industrial Heritage Information Center has been closed to the general public since its opening ceremony at the end of March. Reservations are required for visitors. For more information, call the Information Center at 03-6457-3655 on weekdays from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.



(Click here to read this article in Japanese.)


Author: Shimpei Okuhara

Shimpei Okuhara is a staff writer of The Sankei Shimbun.


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