German historian calls Japan’s removal of forced labor memorial ‘denial’ of historical responsibility

Posted on : 2024-02-01 17:40 KST Modified on : 2024-02-01 17:40 KST
Reinhard Zöllner’s comments came in the preamble to an online petition urging the governor of Gunma Prefecture to halt the monument’s removal and meet with representatives of civil society
The memorial to Koreans killed while performing forced labor for Japan during the latter’s colonial occupation located in the Gunma Prefectural Forest Park. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
The memorial to Koreans killed while performing forced labor for Japan during the latter’s colonial occupation located in the Gunma Prefectural Forest Park. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)

A German historian has launched an online signature campaign to stop Japan’s Gunma Prefecture from removing a memorial honoring Korean victims of forced labor mobilization during the occupation.

Reinhard Zöllner, a professor at the University of Bonn who studies Japanese history, initiated a signature campaign on the website Change.org on Saturday to oppose the removal of the memorial in an urban forest park under the administration of Gunma Prefecture. A total of 832 people had added their signatures as of Thursday noon.

Explaining his reasons for launching the campaign, Zöllner wrote, “Public remembrance cannot be decreed from above; it is a process in which all parts of society must be involved.”

“We therefore call on the prefecture to immediately enter into a public discourse with representatives of civil society [. . .] until a consensus is reached on the importance and necessity of remembrance and reconciliation,” he continued.

“The removal of this memorial without such a consensus will be seen by the world public as a denial of Japan's historical responsibility and a willful damage to Japanese-Korean relations,” he added.

“The still unfinished process of Japanese-Korean reconciliation will be severely damaged,” he warned.

Zöllner is recognized for his awareness of matters concerning South Korea-Japan relations, including the Japanese military “comfort women” issue.

In an interview published Wednesday in Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, he said that he was “personally wounded” to see a video showing the park’s closure for the removal of a memorial carrying a peaceful message. He also warned that the actions would be damaging to Japan’s image.

Commenting on the hundreds of signatures that had been contributed in only a few days, he called this “important evidence of international awareness of this issue.”

On Monday, the Gunma prefectural government closed off the entrances to a prefectural park in the city of Takasaki to begin the process of removing a memorial raised in 2004 to honor Korean victims of forced mobilization. Currently, the front inscription on the memorial’s concrete wall — with its symbolic message of “Remembrance, Reflection and Friendship” — has been removed, along with a rear inscription expressing a message of “sincere reflection on the historic truth that Japan caused great harm and suffering to Koreans.”

The inscriptions were delivered to the civic group that raised the monument and has been maintaining it ever since. The association plans to discuss plans for their reuse, including the possible re-raising of the monument. The removal process is set to continue through Feb. 11.

The Japanese government has avoided expressing a position on the removal, which it has referred to as a “local government matter.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi, a spokesperson for the Japanese government, responded to repeated questions about the removal in regular press conferences on Monday and Tuesday by saying his “understanding is that this is a local government decision, with a finalized ruling by the Supreme Court of Japan.”

“The government will refrain from commenting,” he added.

By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent

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