[Column] Japan's right-wingers are going after Hashima Island's true history

Posted on : 2021-08-15 10:48 KST Modified on : 2021-08-15 10:48 KST
They hope to convince the Japanese public that South Korea's claims of forced labor are false
A 20-minute document called
A 20-minute document called "Midori nashi Shima" (meaning "the island without green") that NHK produced about Hashima in 1955 is facing a concerted barrage from Japan's right-wingers.

UNESCO recently made an important decision about Japan's Hashima Island. The UN agency adopted a resolution on July 22 expressing its strong regret over Japan's failure to adequately disclose the dark history of the 23 modern industrial sites that were inscribed on the World Heritage list in July 2015. At seven of those sites, Koreans were subjected to forced labor during Japan's colonial occupation of the country.

One of the best known of those sites is Hashima, an island off the shore of Nagasaki that's also known as Battleship Island. During World War II, Koreans were conscripted to work in the islands' coal mines, where many of them died from the backbreaking labor.

The Japanese government has to submit an implementation report by Dec. 1, 2022. It would be ideal, though unlikely, for Japan to organize an exhibition recognizing the conscription of those workers and remembering those who died.

The Japanese government's position is that the conscription wasn't illegal because Koreans were subjects of Japan at the time. Japan also emphasizes that the Koreans didn't suffer discrimination. That's consistent with the Japanese view of history, which holds that Japan's colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula was legal and legitimate.

For reasons such as these, Japan might instead try to distort the history of Hashima Island. In fact, the onslaught has already begun.

A 20-minute document called "Midori nashi Shima" (meaning "the island without green") that NHK produced about Hashima in 1955 is facing a concerted barrage from Japan's right-wingers, who dispute the accuracy of several scenes in the documentary showing men in "fundoshi" traditional undergarments and hard hats bent over in the cramped mines.

The National Congress of Industrial Heritage (NCIH) quotes Hashima residents who claimed that the mines shown in the documentary weren't on Hashima. The residents said workers were supposed to wear proper clothing and that the mine shifts weren't so low or cramped.

The NCIH is a far-right organization that the Japanese government has commissioned to run the Industrial Heritage Information Center. The Japanese government opened the center in Shinjuku, Tokyo, as part of its promise with UNESCO to disclose the full history of its industrial heritage.

The director of the center is Koko Kato, a former member of Japan's cabinet secretariat during the premiership of Shinzo Abe and the person who set up the NCIH.

These attempts to distort the history of Hashima are so dangerous because not only far-right groups but also the Japanese government and politicians are so actively involved. In effect, these groups seem to be fully committed to the campaign.

Conservative lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party summoned staff from NHK to the Diet and pressured them to admit that the video had been faked. When staff insisted that an internal review hadn't turned up any evidence that the mine in question wasn't on Hashima, even the NHK chairman pressured them to own up to the fabrication.

Why are these right-wingers going to all this trouble? After securing acknowledgment that the documentary is flawed, they hope to jump to the conclusion that South Korea's claims are false, too. They're trying to convince the public that Korea is using the video as evidence for its claims about conscription and slave labor on Hashima and that the negative image about the island began with the NHK's alleged fabrication.

It's true that the video is a valuable source about the awful working conditions in the Hashima mines. But Korean and Japanese researchers learned the truth about the island long ago through numerous documents and testimony by the survivors. Even if there were issues with the video, that wouldn't justify our rejection of Japan's history of subjecting Koreans to forced labor.

Nevertheless, the Japanese far-right persists in its efforts — apparently because of its huge success in applying similar methods to the issue of the "comfort women," women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military in World War II.

Setting aside the points in contention, anyone who has seen the video would be dumbfounded by the allegations about fabrication. The documentary wasn't made to call out awful conditions on Hashima Island — if anything, it's a promotional video that shows residents enjoying shopping and other leisure activities.

Even in the section about the mines, the narrator enthuses about how the faces of the miners are filled with pride and joy about their contribution to Japan's industrialization. Common sense should tell us that NHK would have had no reason to add fabrications to this kind of puff piece.

By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent

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

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