[Correspondent’s column] UNESCO's warning to Japan and the legacy of Hashima Island

Posted on : 2021-11-19 18:22 KST Modified on : 2021-11-19 18:22 KST
In July, UNESCO voiced strong regret that Japan had yet to implement changes reflecting the history of Japan’s use forced labor on the island
A view of Hashima Island, also known as Gunkanjima or Battleship Island, which is located about 4.5 kilometers west of Nagasaki. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
A view of Hashima Island, also known as Gunkanjima or Battleship Island, which is located about 4.5 kilometers west of Nagasaki. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
Kim So-youn
Kim So-youn
By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent

A statue honoring Korean victims of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan was unveiled in Nagasaki Peace Park on Nov. 6. After covering the event, I hurried to the nearby ferry terminal. I was heading to Hashima Island, known also as Battleship Island, which is located about 4.5 kilometers west of Nagasaki. I wanted to see if the island had changed at all since UNESCO issued its warning to Japan. My hopes weren’t high, but you never know.

In July, UNESCO adopted a resolution voicing strong regret that Japan hadn’t implemented the follow-up measures it had recommended when registering Japanese sites from the Meiji Industrial Revolution on its list of World Heritage Sites in July 2015. Koreans had been conscripted for forced labor at seven of the 23 UNESCO sites, but Japan hadn’t done enough to make visitors aware of that history, UNESCO stated. One of those sites is Hashima Island, the official name of Battleship Island. Koreans who were drafted during the Pacific War were forced to work under brutal conditions in the island’s coal mines, where many of them died.

The two-story ferry traveling to Battleship Island was crammed with tourists, perhaps because COVID-19 cases had been dropping in Japan. Married couples, youngsters on dates, and families with kids in tow looked excited as they enjoyed their day out.

The package tour to Battleship Island was extremely commercialized. Premium, priority and economy tickets seated tourists in different parts of the boat and provided them access to varying levels of service. During the 40-minute trip to the island, a tour guide provided a detailed explanation of the island’s history, the characteristics of the buildings, and the conditions of the people who lived there.

After landing on Battleship Island, we followed our guide around for about 30 or 40 minutes and got to see a small fraction of the buildings there. Despite all the limitations, tourists were busily snapping photos of the buildings, which were more than a century old. It was strange to think that a place of such immense tragedy for some people could be a place to have some fun or earn a buck for others.

The word “Korean” only came up one time during the two hours I spent on the boat and touring the island. While discussing the buildings after we disembarked there, the Japanese guide said, “There were not only Japanese but also Koreans and Chinese working here.” That was it. The pamphlets that were handed out to us as we boarded the ship made no mention of Koreans, not to mention the discrimination or forced labor they suffered. It was what I’d expected, but it still bothered me.

Though some refuse to talk about the past, that doesn’t mean it can be erased. A glimpse into the actual conditions on Battleship Island can be gained nearby, in downtown Nagasaki, at the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum. This museum was established in 1995 by conscientious Japanese to honor the work of Masaharu Oka (1918–1994), a minister who spent his life for the cause of peace.

Oka was the one who took interest in the Korean victims of the atomic bomb when no one else did and brought them to the attention of the world. The second floor of the museum is filled with the names of the victims of the atomic bombs and the Koreans and Chinese who were subjected to forced labor in Nagasaki. One side of the museum tells the story of Seo Jeong-u, a Korean who was taken to the coal mines of Battleship Island at the age of 15 and was then moved to Mitsubishi’s shipyard in Nagasaki, where he was exposed to radiation when the atomic bomb fell on the city.

Kim Pu-ja, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies who is actively working to resolve the comfort women issue, made the following remarks in an interview with the Hankyoreh in August.

“Restoring the dignity of the victims through a clear apology and recognition of the facts can’t change the harm they suffered in the past, but it can create a future in which human rights are respected.” That is, the reason we must confront the facts of history is to make a better future.

The Japanese government has until Dec. 1 of next year to submit its report. UNESCO has asked Japan to faithfully implement its recommendations, and Japan doesn’t have much time left.

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

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