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

The stories told by these statistics reveal the reality of wartime laborer, which differs dramatically from the claims of capture and forced labor, or slave labor, touted by some.




(Third of 5 Parts)


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

Part 2: [Wartime Laborers] Separating Facts from Fiction: Korean Workers Were Recruited, Not Coerced

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




Around 635,000 Koreans were mobilized as wartime laborers in Japan, out of a population that was about 2 million by the end of the war. It will be helpful to examine the characteristics of the three phases of recruitment.


There were large numbers of laborers from Korea working on the Japanese mainland well before mobilization began in 1939. Due to the close proximity of Korea, many migrant workers did not immigrate fully to the mainland. Rather, it was common to make frequent trips back and forth between their homes in Korea and their workplaces on the mainland.


The increase in the number of Korean migrants in Japan caused unemployment and job shortages among mainlanders to intensify, while unemployment among Koreans already living on the mainland also rose. As a result, crime and other problems also increased, prompting the Japanese Cabinet in 1934 to enact comprehensive measures to decrease the number of Korean migrants.



According to the Judicial Affairs Research Report, Volume 43, No. 3: “Trends and the Current Status of Treatment of Korean Persons Residing in Japan” (Judicial Affairs Research Institute, July 1955), the following measures were taken:


  1. Suppress Korea’s migration fever to the mainland.
  2. Further strengthen local controls on unauthorized migration in Korea.
  3. Further intensify regulation of stowaways.
  4. Recommend that employers on the mainland hire Koreans already living on the mainland, or Japanese, and admonish them from bringing in new laborers from Korea.


The mobilization based on “recruitment” that began in September 1939 was designated as an exception to the Cabinet decision. Left unchecked, large numbers of migrant Koreans were coming over to the mainland. This policy was already in place to stop them when the mobilization began.



Early Period of Mobilization: 1939-1941


Under the mobilization based on recruitment (1939-1942), business proprietors on the mainland were instructed not to recruit laborers from Korea. However, under the name of wartime mobilization, restrictions were lifted to allow some exceptions, allowing companies with permission to travel to Korea for the recruitment of labor.



This labor mobilization, however, was not a matter of bringing Koreans to Japan against their will. The policy was intended to “further intensify regulation of stowaways,” whose economic migration to the mainland continued.


In the three years from the start of Phase 1 mobilization — that is, direct recruitment by companies — in 1939 through 1941, 18,000 stowaways were uncovered, and 16,000 of these were sent back to Korea.


When Phase 1 of the mobilization effort began and limited passage to Japan became possible for those recruited, migration fever again rose rapidly in Korea. However, nine times the number of Koreans who came over as official recruits scrambled to get to Japan as migrant workers.


According to Home Ministry statistics, 126,000 Koreans were mobilized as wartime laborers during this period, while the total number of migrants to the mainland was 1,070,000. Those mobilized for the war effort were less than 11% of the total. The remaining 90% — about 944,000 people — were simply migrant workers.



Permission for migration to the mainland from 1939 to 1942 under the private recruitment policy was intended to allow travel to Japan as an exception to the restrictions in place at the time. In actuality, though, nine times the number of mobilized laborers travelled to the mainland of their own free will as migrant workers.



Mobilization by ‘Government Placement’: 1942-1944


Phase 2 mobilization of wartime labor through “government placement” was explained in the Judicial Affairs Research Report referred to above. It said:


Business proprietors were to submit the Request for Immigration and Hiring of Korean Laborers to prefectural governors. Upon approval, the Korean Laborer Government Placement Application was to be submitted to the Governor-General. If this was approved by the Governor-General, the region was decided, and notice sent. At the provincial level, assignments were determined down to the town or village, via the labor referral agency, the city, county or island, and laborers were selected. In other words, laborers were assembled under the responsibility of the government. Further, laborers were organized into groups of five to ten persons, then into squads of two to four groups and corps of about five squads for dispatch. The corps chief and other leaders were chosen to maintain discipline. Employers or their proxies took over at the point of departure and escorted the laborers on their voyage.



Led by the Governor-General of Korea, various local government organizations assembled the laborers they were allotted. As we saw in the 1939-1942 Phase 1 recruitments, aside from the mobilization plan, nine times as many Koreans voyaged to Japan to look for work on their own, as those who were recruited through Phase 2 mobilization plan.


As a result, it became difficult to assemble Korean laborers for relatively unpopular work that was critical to the war effort, such coal mining. Therefore, a “government placement” mobilization policy was adopted, whereby the government allotted numbers to those mobilized, without telling laborers their destinations. However, this system, like its predecessors, was not legally enforceable and there was no criminal punishment for laborers who failed to comply with mobilization.



Conscription and Migration: 1944-1945


As the war situation worsened, Phase 3 of the mobilization of wartime labor, which consisted of legally enforceable conscription, commenced in Korea in September 1944. As before, the Governor-General assigned allotments to local administrative bodies, which in turn assembled laborers.



According to Home Ministry statistics, the number of laborers mobilized during this Phase 3 mobilization of “conscription” with “government placement” was 478,000, rising to 37% of those migrating to the mainland. In the same period, the total number of Koreans moving to the mainland was 1,186,000. In other words, 60%, or 708,000 of the migrating Koreans, were voluntary migrants looking for work.


As the war situation worsened and the number of people returning to Korea rose rapidly, there was still a net increase of 530,000 people in the Korean population on the mainland. Mobilized laborers accounted for 90% of this.


Although statistics on births and other natural growth of the Korean population in Japan do not exist, it must have been in the tens of thousands. The numbers still suggests that there was some success in controlling self-motivated migration to the mainland.



Wartime Labor and Job Mobility



Approximately 40% of mobilized laborers fled from their assigned workplace mid-contract and moved to jobs with better conditions. With the large number of fugitives, only 320,000 (out of the original 635,000) laborers remained at their assigned posts at the war’s end. Many had taken advantage of government placement and conscription to get to Japan, where they found opportunities to move to jobs with better pay.


The large number of fugitives is sometimes used as an example to argue that laborers were treated poorly. But if this was so, the fugitives would have returned to Korea. Instead, they did not return, but moved to other jobs in Japan. In some cases, upon reaching Japan, they were assisted by job brokers with whom they had contact before arriving in Japan.


During wartime, most adult males on the mainland entered the military, resulting in soaring private wages. Accordingly, a rapid stream of migrant workers poured into Japan from Korea.


Wartime mobilization was an attempt to direct this flow to the industries critical to the war effort. However, the number of workers mobilized during recruitment was a mere 10% of the total migrants, rising to no more than 40% during the third phase of conscription, with government-assigned job placement.



Massive numbers of migrant workers came to Japan on their own. Moreover, 40% left their assignments mid-contract and moved to other workplaces. These are the facts when examining wartime mobilization from the macro perspective.


The stories told by these statistics reveal the reality of wartime laborer, which differs dramatically from the claims of capture and forced labor, or slave labor, touted by some.


(To be continued)







Author: Tsutomu Nishioka