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[Lee Kyong-hee] A history war or war on truth, Mr. Abe?

Every February, a memorial service is held in Yamaguchi prefecture, Japan for 183 men who died in a 1942 coal mine disaster. Most of them were Koreans, but the Japanese government does not acknowledge they existed.

Likewise, wartime Korean laborers forced to toil in gold and silver mines on the island of Sado are overlooked. On Feb. 1, Japan nominated the Sado mines for a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, exacerbating already fragile Korea-Japan relations and reminding us that their ongoing debate over historical wrongs has no foreseeable resolution soon.

Behind the scene, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed the nomination. Abe’s home turf is Yamaguchi and his influential right-wing followers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are no strangers to revisionist history.

The disaster in Yamaguchi prefecture involved the Chosei coal mine, which was under the seabed, 1 km off the cost of Ube city. On Feb. 3, 1942, the mine collapsed and the mine tunnel instantly flooded. All of the miners -- 136 Koreans and 47 Japanese -- perished. None of the bodies were recovered and the mine was closed shortly after the accident. Japanese news media only gave cursory coverage of the disaster.

Yoko Inoue, who heads a private organization dedicated to memorializing the miners, wants to restore their dignity by having their remains recovered and returned to their families. To that end, she says the miners’ descendants would continue to negotiate with the Japanese government.

In 2013, the Korean families and concerned Japanese erected Japanese and Korean memorial steles near the Chosei mine piers, the only tangible evidence of the mine. The Korean stele states that the Korean victims were “forcibly hauled” to the mine, contradicting the Japanese government’s persistent denial of its wartime use of forced Korean labor.

The nomination of the Sado mines is expected to incite inquiries about the use of forced labor at the mines, as did the sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution when they were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015. Included in the Meiji sites is the notorious coal mine on Hashima, or Battleship Island, where hundreds of Koreans labored in brutal conditions. Japan promised to have dialogue between the concerned parties to provide a full history of the sites. To date, the promise remains unfulfilled.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida initially wanted to avoid recommending the Sado mines, realizing it would further intensify the wartime labor controversy with Korea. However, with the House of Councilors elections scheduled for July and in view of his own weak political base, Kishida must have found it difficult to ignore Abe’s pressure.

For Abe, UNESCO recognition of Sado mines, given its tourist value for the sagging local economy, would seem to be good fodder for political campaigning. He urged not to back down in a “history war waged by Koreans” and “fight back with facts.”

Abe’s position concerning the “comfort women” issue has already earned him a reputation for mounting a “war on truth.” His “facts” often seem far removed from “truth.”

Despite the Japanese government’s blind eye and tone deafness, Japanese society doesn’t seem lacking in conscientious citizens. They raise critical voices and sympathize with victims of Imperial Japan’s wartime wrongdoings in the name of justice and human rights.

The documentary film, “Target,” by Shinji Nishijima, a former broadcasting journalist-turned a film director, traces the ordeal of Takashi Uemura, a former reporter of the Asahi Shimbun who wrote an exclusive story on the late Kim Hak-soon in 1991. Kim was the first former “comfort woman” who stepped forward to speak about her hellish experience at Imperial Japan’s military brothel during World War II.

The film was presented at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival. Explaining his motive for the film at an awards ceremony, Nishijima said, “I also reported about Kim just a few days after Uemura had a scoop on her. And there were other reporters, if not many, who covered Kim’s testimony at the time. I wanted to ask through my film why the right-wing nationalists in Japan specifically chose Uemura and his newspaper as their only target of threats.”

Uemura himself recalls that in the summer of 1990, he struggled in vain to find victims of Japan’s military brothel system to testify for his newspaper’s “Summer Peace Project.” None of those women living in hiding wanted to publicly recount their past and Korean society at large remained silent about the issue. Yun Chung-ok, a professor at Ewha Womans University and human rights activist, who initiated the movement to support those women, gave Uemura access to a taped testimony by Kim.

It differs between individuals how they try to contribute to restoring justice that has been undermined by state powers or the vested rights. In Fukuoka, Japan, scores of Japanese citizens gather once a month to read poems written by Yoon Dong-ju (1917-1945) and discuss his poetry and the era he lived as well as relations between Japan and Korea.

The participants select one of Yoon’s poems to recite in both Korean and Japanese and they give their interpretation based on studying the original poem in Yoon’s own handwriting. “These meetings have proven to be a precious occasion for learning and self-reflections for us to face ourselves and the history of our two countries,” explained Mikiko Managi for a Korean reporter in 2019. Managi joined the gathering in 1997 and has led it since 2002.

On Feb. 16, 1945, just months before Korea’s liberation from Japan, Yoon died in a prison in Fukuoka under mysterious circumstances. It is easier to hate than to understand. Dialogue is more needed than ever to thaw the frozen ties between the two neighbors. Leaders of both countries should think how to start a conversation. 

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

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