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[Wartime Laborers] Separating Facts from Fiction: Korean Workers Were Recruited, Not Coerced

The foundation of Japan-South Korea relations was shaken by the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime laborers in Japan. An explanation of the key terms is important.




(Second of 5 Parts)

Part 1: [Wartime Laborers] South Korea Ignores History, Violates 54-Year-Old Treaty

Part 3: [Wartime Laborers] The 3 Phases of Recruitment: Workers Came to Japan on Their Own

Part 4: [Wartime Laborers] Koreans Were Compensated Twice Before 

Part 5: [Wartime Laborers] Japan Activists Incite Koreans to Sue Based on Lies About Forced Labor




The foundation of Japan-South Korea relations was shaken by the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime laborers in Japan. An explanation of the key terms is important for the issue to be better understood by a wider audience. 

The Terminology


The first term is the phrase “mobilization of wartime laborers,” which began in 1939 and consisted of three phases.


The first two mobilization phases provided for the voluntary placement of laborers in war-related industries. The first phase was recruitment directly by the companies hiring the laborers (1939-1942). The second phase was mobilization by “government placement,” with numbers of desired laborers to sign up for work distributed to regions by the Governor General of Korea (1942-1944).


However, for both types, the “placement” was entirely unenforceable. As the circumstances of the war became more difficult, from September 1944 to 1945, the third phase of mobilization was initiated, when a legally enforceable order to conscript laborers was issued.


The second term is “Korean wartime laborers.” As the terms “drafted” or “conscripted” do not encompass wartime laborers as a whole, the term “Korean wartime laborers” is used.



Then, what were the circumstances and conditions of the Koreans seeking reparations from Japanese companies? To state my conclusion first, the image accepted in some circles — of laborers being forced into work by those in power and exploited like slaves — runs counter to the facts. I shall explain in step-by-step detail based on empirical studies conducted in Japan and the Republic of Korea.


Koreans Prospered Under Japanese Rule


In 1910, Japan and the Korean Empire signed the Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty, and Korea was incorporated into Japan’s territory. Yet the laws of the mainland were not immediately applied, and a Governor-General of Korea was set up to rule the Korean peninsula.


In order to bring modern civilization to the impoverished Korean society, the Governor-General worked to build infrastructure while Japan bore the sizeable financial burden. During Japan’s rule, the Korean population rose from 13 million in 1910 to 29 million in 1945: 25 million on the Korean mainland, 2 million in Japan, 2 million in Manchuria/Northern China, 1 million in the Soviet Union. (See History of Koreans in Japan: A Story of Numbers by Yoshio Morita, published in Japanese by Akashi Shoten, 1996.)


Further, according to recent research by Korean economists, Korea’s economy grew at an average rate of 3.7% from 1910 to 1940. Factoring in the population growth rate of 1.3% during the same period, the real income per capita rose by an annual average of 2.4%. (See Story of the Republic of Korea by Lee Young-hoon, published in Japanese by Bungeishunju in 2009.)



In other words, I would like to stress the point that Koreans as individuals prospered during Japan’s rule.


The Mobilization of Korean Wartime Laborers


During the war, it was common to mobilize not only the citizens of one’s own country but also other people ruled by one’s country to work in munitions industries. Likewise, labor mobilization during wartime was not a violation of the International Labour Organization Convention. (See the “Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor,” 1930, under the ILO.)


In Japan, the National Mobilization Law enacted in 1939 established a system for labor mobilization during wartime. Mandatory labor mobilization based on legally-enforced conscription was immediately implemented on the mainland.


However, it was not implemented on the Korean peninsula at the time. Rather, there were three phases of mobilization:



  1.   From September 1939 to January 1942, private companies traveled to Korea for “recruitment.”
  2.   From February 1942 to August 1944, the Governor-General of Korea allotted mobilization numbers to each city and county and turned over “government placements” to private companies.
  3.   From September 1944 to March 1945, “conscription” was carried out based on an order to draft.


For all three types of mobilization, laborers worked at private companies, normally on two-year contracts. Pay was comparable to that of Japanese laborers, and on the whole good, because wages had risen at the time due to an extreme labor shortage on the mainland. Most Japanese men had already been conscripted into the military.


In phase 1, laborers recruited directly by private companies knew in advance where they would be working. However, in phases 2 and 3, laborers were first mobilized, and then once recruited, they were notified where they would work.


In all three phases, it is a fact that labor mobilization was characterized by an intent to contribute to the war effort. 


How Many Koreans Came to Japan Under the Mobilization Law?


When Japan was defeated in August 1945, there were two million Koreans living in Japan. Of these, roughly 320,000 were laborers who had been mobilized under the National Mobilization Law. In other words, only 15% of them were mobilized wartime laborers.



As there were 110,000 Koreans who were military personnel or military civilian employees, in the broad sense of the term, you could say there were 430,000 Korean mobilized laborers in Japan.


But even including this figure, it was only 22% of the total number of Koreans in Japan at the time. The other roughly 80%, or 1.57 million people, were those who had come to Japan to work, or fled their mobilized labor jobs and moved to workplaces with better pay, and those who remained after their contracts had ended, as well as the families of these people.


At the end of 1938, just before the wartime mobilization, the Korean population in Japan was approximately 800,000. Of the additional 1.2 million Koreans who came to Japan after 1938, two-thirds — or 770,000 people — were not part of the wartime mobilization. Rather, they came to Japan of their own volition. (See The Labor Recruitment Issue Hoax by Tsutomu Nishioka, published in Japanese by Soshisha, 2019.)


A few differing statistics exist for the total number of laborers mobilized to the mainland, making the exact number unknown. In the 1959 edition of “Immigration Bureau White Paper,” the Japanese government states the number to have been approximately 635,000. In my judgement, this number is valid.


So, how do the total numbers of mobilized wartime laborers break down? As one might expect, several figures exist. According to my research: 

  • 130,000, recruited by private industry in phase 1 
  • 300,000, mobilized in phase 2 through government placement
  • About 200,000, conscripted as mobilized laborers in phase 3. 


(To be continued)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

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