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The Reality of the Mobilization of Koreans During World War II - An Analysis Based on Statistics and Written Records




(First of a 3-Part Series)


In 1965, Japan and South Korea normalized their diplomatic relations. Japan paid South Korea $ 300 million with no strings attached in accordance with the Agreement Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation.


With this payment, both countries confirmed that all post-war claims, including for Koreans who participated in wartime mobilization, had been settled “completely and finally.” Some refer to the wartime of mobilization of people based on the laws of the time as an inhumane form of “slave labor.”


Japan governed Korea for nearly 35 years, from September 1910 to August 1945. In 1965, 20 years after Japan’s defeat in World War II and the end of Japanese rule over Korea, Japan and South Korea normalized their diplomatic relations by concluding a number of agreements, including the Treaty on Basic Relations and the Agreement Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation.



At that time, Japan paid South Korea $ 300 million dollars with no strings attached, in accordance with the agreement (Agreement, Article I, Paragraph (a)). With this payment, both countries confirmed that all post- war claims, including for Koreans who participated in wartime mobilization, had been settled “completely and finally” (Agreement, Article II).


Since the end of Japanese rule in Korea, 73 years have elapsed — a period that is more than twice the duration of that rule. Fifty-three years have passed since the signing of the treaties.


A decision was handed last October by South Korean Supreme Court, ordering Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Co. to pay monetary damages to “former conscripted workers,” who worked for Japanese firms in Japan as wartime-mobilized workers during the colonial period, and their descendants.


Some refer to the wartime of mobilization of people based on the laws of the time as an inhumane form of “slave labor.” Yet this is not the truth. In this paper, I will shed light on the reality of the wartime mobilization of workers by analyzing official statistics and written records. They show that there are layers of untruth to descriptions of young men being forcibly taken from peaceful farm villages to work as slaves.



What the Statistics Show About Wartime Mobilization



The expression “wartime mobilization of Koreans” refers to the sending of Korean laborers from Korea to Japan (and Sakhalin, then called Karafuto, as well as islands in the Southern Pacific) in accordance with the Plan for Sending Koreans to Japan. This plan was created in 1939 based on the National Mobilization Law.


The mobilization of soldiers and people working for the military are sometimes added to this definition.


The people who were mobilized were sent to work at companies in the private sector, where they were paid relatively high wages, usually based on the terms of their time-limited contracts of employment.


1938 marked the 29th year since Japan’s annexation of Korea. At the end of 1938, the Korean population in Japan was 800,000, according to Ministry of Home Affairs statistics. (All figures until 1944 are from this source.)


It should be recognized that a great number of Koreans were already living in Japan before the start of wartime mobilization. The population of Koreans in Japan before the start of mobilization was almost 50% greater than the 550,000 who remained in Japan after World War II.



Incidentally, the Korean population in Japan in 1911, the year after the annexation, was no more than some 2,500, but it rapidly increased to about 30,000 in 1920, a decade after the annexation, and about 300,000 in 1930, another 10 years on.


Now, what was the Korean population in Japan in August 1945? No definitive statistics exist. But Yoshio Morita, who was an authority on this issue, estimated that there were about two million Koreans by using Ministry of Home Affairs statistics in the following way:


The general Korean population at the end of 1944 was 1,911,409 (excluding Sakhalin), with many evacuating to Korea when the air-raids on Japan started in 1945. The statistics until May show that the number of Koreans going back to Korea outnumbered those going to Japan by more than 10,000. After that, ferry services were more or less suspended, so the number of Koreans in Japan at the end of the war was about 2 million, taking into consideration the natural increase in population, and adding soldiers. (Yoshio Morita, Suji ga kataru zai-Nichi Kankoku–Chosenjin no rekishi [The History of Koreans in Japan in Numbers]).


By the end of 1938, a year before the start of the wartime mobilization of Koreans, 800,000 Koreans were living in Japan. This number increased to around two million by August 1945.


Does this mean that the difference of 1.2 million Koreans were brought to Japan as part of wartime mobilization? Nothing could be farther from the truth.




Most Koreans Came to Work Voluntarily


When the war ended, there were 322,890 Koreans employed at locations designated for mobilized workers, according to a survey by the Demobilization Bureau. At the end of the war, there were 112,718 Korean soldiers and other military personnel in Japan, who were not included in the statistics for mobilized workers.


This gives a total of 435,608 Koreans, which corresponds to about 22% of the two million Koreans in Japan at the end of the war. That figure is equal to about 36% of the 1.2 million increase in the Korean population in Japan that happened during the wartime mobilization.


At the end of the war, only about 20% of the Koreans in Japan were working at locations for mobilized workers.


What does this mean? It means that about 80% of the two million Koreans who were in Japan at the end of the war had emigrated of their own volition.



More precisely, 80% of the Korean population in Japan at the end of the war had either emigrated voluntarily or were the children of those who had remained in Japan voluntarily. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Koreans who traveled to Japan during the wartime mobilization period from 1939 to August 1945 did so outside the framework of the mobilization plan or chose to live in Japan of their own volition after ending their employment at private-sector companies that had been designated for mobilized workers.



Koreans in Japan Before the Wartime Mobilization


In order to understand the significance of these figures, and to get at the truth, we must first understand the reality of the Koreans who moved to Japan before wartime mobilization.


Many people moved from the Korean peninsula to Japan during the 35 years of colonial rule and especially during the years between 1921 and the end of World War II. In September 1923, groundless rumors that spread in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake led to the tragic killing of Koreans in quake-stricken areas at the hands of vigilantes. However, the Korean population in Japan, which had been 60,000 in 1922, continued to rapidly increase to 80,000 in 1923, when the earthquake occurred, and to 120,000 in 1924, indicating that the flow of people from Korea did not stop.


Most of the people moving to Japan from Korea were migrant workers and their families. In fact, this movement of migrant workers did not end during wartime mobilization, but rather surged.



In order to understand this, we must first acknowledge that there were many workers who migrated from Korea to Japan many years before the start of wartime mobilization.



Explosive Population Growth in Korea under Japanese Rule


What was the reason for this gigantic flow of migrant workers? There were three causes.


First, the number of Korean people grew explosively under Japanese rule. The Korean population was 13 million in 1910 when Japanese rule commenced, and it had grown to more than 29 million by the end of World War II. By the end of the war, there were 25 million Koreans in Korea, two million in Japan, two million in Manchuria and North China, and one million in the Soviet Union.


Second, life was harsh in the Korean farm villages, where most of the population growth happened.



Third, at the time, Japan had a demand for labor that could accommodate numerous migrant workers. Labor was needed in the cities, mines, and factories of Japan, so anyone who could pay the travel expenses could make a living in the country.


Due to the short distance, it was possible to frequently go back and forth between Korea and Japan. The number of people making the journey every year was more than 100,000 from 1925.



The Endless Stream of Illegal Immigrants


The arrival of a large number of undereducated Korean farmers with insufficient Japanese language skills caused various forms of friction with Japanese society. Moreover, when Japan entered a recession, some Japanese workers lost their jobs to Koreans.


As will be discussed more in detail in the second part of this series, there were Koreans who escaped wartime mobilization when it started. They hindered the execution of the mobilization plan by finding employment in Japanese non-military industries. As such, the Japanese government implemented administrative measures to severely restrict the movement of people from Korea.



Statistics from the Government General of Korea show that 163,760 workers and their families were stopped from traveling to Japan at Busan and other departure points between 1925 and 1937 because they did not have the required certificates or otherwise failed to meet the prescribed conditions.


Furthermore, between 1933 and 1938, as many as 727,094 were stopped in their hometowns, that is, their areas of residence in Korea.


Between 1933 and 1937, for which we have statistics, 1,087,563 applications to go to Japan were submitted (including re-submissions), of which roughly 60%, or 651,878, were rejected. The acceptance rate was about 40%, or less than half.


There was also a constant flow of persons who entered illegally without completing the formal procedures. Measures to send back illegal immigrants to Korea were enforced in Japan. Statistics from the Ministry of Home Affairs show that as many as 39,482 illegal border crossers were found in Japan between 1930 and 1942; 33,535 of them were deported.


Of special relevance is that 22,800 illegal immigrants (equal to 58% of all illegal border crossers who were discovered between 1930 and 1942) were discovered, and 19,250 (equal to 57% of all those who were deported between 1930 and 1942) were sent home from 1939 to 1942.



This indicates that the number of illegal border crossers actually surged during wartime mobilization. The Japanese government forcibly sent home about 20,000 Korean illegal border crossers in the four-year period for which we have statistics.


The mobilization of Koreans for work in Japan was conducted based on procedures established by law, and illegal immigrants who attempted to find work outside of the established legal frameworks were deported. This fact was common knowledge back then, but it is all but forgotten today. This is the key to understanding wartime mobilization.


(To be continued)





Author: Tsutomu Nishioka




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