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[Editorial] Keep the promise

Japan conceals Battleship Island slave labor, breaks oath to honor victims at info center

The Japanese government has reportedly concealed historical facts on wartime forced labor at its newly opened information center.

When 23 industrial sites of the Meiji-era (1868-1912) were registered on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2015, Tokyo promised to establish an information center to honor the victims, recognizing “Koreans and others who were brought against their will to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites.”

Among the registered sites is the notorious Hashima Island, also known as Battleship Island, where many Koreans endured forced labor like slaves -- a reason why South Korea had opposed the designation.

Articles on exhibition at the Industrial Heritage Information Centre in Shinjuku, Tokyo, which opened to the public on Monday, reportedly focused on showing off achievements of industrialization in the areas of iron, steel and coal mining.

The center gave short shrift to the suffering of Korean victims. Rather it is said to exhibit testimonies by former residents in the island who deny the slave labor and discrimination against Korean laborers.

Tokyo argues it has kept its promise to honor the victims, citing the text of the promise on display at the center. This is absurd. Japan broke its promise to the international community. Its behavior of hiding historical facts is as good as betraying trust shown by the international community.

Appropriately, the Korean government called in Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita, hours after the center opened, to express regret and urge Tokyo to take sincere follow-up steps to honor forced labor victims.

Battleship Island is a historic site where Korean victims of compulsory labor had to endure a horrible life. It is a 6.3-hectare island -- 480 meters long and 160 meters wide and 1.2 km in circumference -- known for its undersea coal mines.

Its most notable features are the concrete apartment blocks and the surrounding sea wall. Its official name is Hashima Island but is known as Battleship Island for resembling a battleship. The mines were closed in 1974 and all the residents departed soon after.

Five years have passed since the island was formally approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of Japan’s sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution. But Japan’s publicity regarding the island, shown in a museum or in video played by ferries to the island, is said to highlight only positive aspects of the island’s history. They do not show the entire related history, ignoring recommendations made by the World Heritage Committee when the sites were registered.

Japan’s attempts to cover up parts of history are as futile as sticking its head in the sand. There are undeniable historical materials. Furthermore, survivors have told the truth vividly. Most of the laborers drafted to the undersea coal mines were Korean or Chinese. They mined coal under harsh conditions 600-700 meters under the sea and were mistreated. Japanese residents on the island lived a comfortable life high above the ground.

About 800 Koreans were commandeered to the mines from 1939-1945, and reportedly 134 of them died on the island. Korean victims are said to have called the site as “Hell Island” where no one could get out alive. About 33,000 Koreans are estimated to have been forcibly mobilized to industrial sites including coal mines, steel works and a shipyard in the latter days of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.

Despite these stark historical facts, the Japanese government avoids reflecting on its history and resolving issues based on self-examination. Instead, it appears engrossed in shirking responsibility and whitewashing its history.

A site being registered as world heritage means that the venue is worth preserving as a universal asset for humankind, not as a place for the self-rationalization of the related country or region. In this sense, Japan must keep its words sincerely to honor the victims and follow the World Heritage Committee’s recommendation that it come up with ways to allow an understanding of the “full history” of each site.
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