[Traces of forced mobilization-part two] Remains of unidentified Korean conscripted laborers remain at Takashima Island

Posted on : 2010-02-03 12:44 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Observers say it would be possible to identify the remains if the Japanese government demands the temples examine related documents such as death registries
 which originally contained an ossuary underneath.
which originally contained an ossuary underneath.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the forceful annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. A number of issues, however, remain unresolved between South Korea and Japan. This is part two of the Hankyoreh’s series about traces of history, which has been made in hopes that both countries are able to move together toward a brighter future after having resolved remaining issues concerning conscripted labor and other human rights issues.

“Takashima, Hashima, Sakito.”

These three words were on the lips of miners and people of the Nagasaki Prefecture mining industry during the period of the Japanese Empire. Today, there is a bridge leading to Sakito and it can be reached from central Nagasaki by traveling about two hours on the expressway, but at that time all three islands were cut off completely from the outside world by rough waves. Minors called them the “Ghost Islands,” meaning that anyone who set foot on them was unlike to come back alive. Even the most experienced ones who had worked in the coalmines of the Chikuho area, the site of the largest coalfield on Kyushu, were afraid to go to the Ghost Islands. The order of the sites was determined by the rhythm of Japanese pronunciation, but in terms of poor working environments, they are all said to have been more or less the same.

Chief among the things the three islands had in common was the presence of large-scale submarine coalmines. Miners are said to have traveled down to depths of up to 900 meters off Hashima for underwater mining.

A second commonality was the fact that the Mitsubishi Corporation was in charge of managing operations for all three island mining sites. Since the exploration of underwater mines required the most up-to-date mining technology and was tremendously expensive, the project was taken over from small to mid-sized mining companies by Mitsubishi, which had gone from triumph to triumph after becoming in league with the administration following the Meiji Restoration.

The third thing the islands shared was a considerable presence of Koreans, who were forced to endure the hardship of mining on faraway islands through recruitment and conscription. Among them were the victims of so-called “double conscription,” who were forced to work in the mines of Sakhalin during the Japanese Empire and then came to the Ghost Islands late in the war.

On Jan. 22, I took a high-speed passenger ferry from Nagaski Terminal to Takashima, located about 14.5 kilometers away. When I arrived at the Takashima pier after a trip that lasted about 35 minutes, I saw a sign indicating that this was a tourist site. A large statue stood about 20 meters away from the ferry’s anchorage. The statue, erected in December 2004, was an image of Iwasaki Yataro (1835-1885), founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation. Mitsubishi took over the Takashima mine in March 1881. It went on to run the mine until it was closed in November 1986, which means that it maintained its influence as a big player on this island for no less than 105 years.

Located right at the center of the island is the mountain Gongen-zan, which rises 120 meters above sea level. About halfway up the mountain is a shrine, and beside it lies a flat plot of land with a memorial marker in one corner. That marker was erected by the Mitsubishi Coal Mining Company two years after the mine closed down. On the upper right of the marker is a flower relief with scratches around it. Takazane Yasunori, the 71-year-old director of the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum who accompanied me, told me that there was originally an inscription where the relief is currently, but that someone with a grudge destroyed it with a sledgehammer. He said that after repairing the parts that had fallen away, the company covered up the remains of the inscription with a relief.

What could have been written in the inscription that would cause someone to act in such a hostile manner bearing a grudge? The original text consisted of two paragraphs. The first said that those honored had made great contributions to the development of the Japanese economy and the promotion of the local community, but that they were unable to deal with the flow of the times and had lowered the curtain on a glittering history lasting over a century. It is the second paragraph that clearly shows Mitsubishi‘s understanding of conscripted labor. The somewhat lengthy paragraph reads as follows.

“We long for the days in which many workers and their families, including people who came from China and the Korean Peninsula, transcended race and nationality to share one heart in tending the flame of coal mining and sharing joy and sorrow together, and we pray for the eternal rest of those who lost their lives during their work or perished on this land by erecting this monument to comfort all their souls.”

When the contents of the inscription became known, ethnic Koreans who had endured harsh treatment at the site during the Japanese Empire were unable to conceal their anger. There was nothing written to indicate that Korean and Chinese workers had been brought there against their will. The people who were brought to the Ghost Islands endured harsh labor, beatings, and punishments, and a number of them died in accidents or from malnutrition. Japanese civic groups protested, charging that expressions such as “sharing joy and sorrow” flew in the face of historical fact, but the company refused to modify the inscription, claiming that it had already passed through prior discussions with the local headquarters of the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) and the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon). It was in the midst of this controversy that the destruction of the inscription took place.

Another ten minutes of walking from the shrine takes you to the Takashima Cemetery. This is a public cemetery for residents of the island. Perhaps because this is one of the areas in Japan where the Christian faith took root the fastest, one can see quite a number of headstones engraved with the baptismal names of the deceased. As you head inward, the cemetery ends and bushes appear before you. If you follow the faint trail between the bushes, you can find a very old stone monument, with a marker explaining that it is a memorial tower. It has no official name, but locals call the site “Senninzuka,” which translates as “thousand-person tomb.” It is said that the monument originally had an ossuary underneath, which contained the remains of countless people who came to work at the mines and ended up dying in a foreign land. These included the remains of Koreans who were conscripted to perform labor during the Japanese Empire and died while toiling on the islands of Takashima and Hashima. A program made in the mid-1970s by NBC, Nagasaki’s local broadcasting network, contains an image showing a Korean name on one of the boxes of remains interred at Senninzuka.

However, something astonishing happened when Mitsubishi moved the Senninzuka remains to a nearby temple during the closure of the Takashima Mine, claiming that it was laying them to eternal rest. The company moved the ashes into cup-sized jars and interred them in Kinshoji, a temple near the cemetery, then sealed up the ossuary that had been underground. Around 115 such jars were moved to the temple from Senninzuka at the time. About ten of them had Japanese names written on them, while the remainder had nothing. Under the circumstances, it is very likely that the unknown remains belonged to Korean victims, but at present it is difficult to confirm in any way. For around a decade, the Association of Family Members of Korean Victims at Hashima and Japanese civic groups have been calling on Mitsubishi Materials Corporation, the successor to Mitsubishi Coal Mining, to dig up the sealed ossuary, but the company has stubbornly refused to do so, claiming that it “might harm the dignity of their souls.” Director Takazane Yasunori called this “incredibly wicked and craven.” While he had maintained a gentle expression during his words up until that point, his tone became coarse as he talked about Mitsubishi‘s attitude. It would be possible to identify the remains, he said, if the Japanese government demanded with sincerity that the temples involved examine related documents such as death registries.

There are still no precise figures on the number of deaths among Koreans taken to the three Ghost Islands. Japanese researchers estimate that around 6,000 conscriptees were taken to Sakito, and 4,000 to Takashima and Hashima. According to an investigation based on reports by surviving family members, the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism puts the number of those who died on the islands at 59. However, it is likely that the number of actual victims is far greater.

Written by Kim Hyo-soon, senior reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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