When a certain memory is given a historical meaning, a question remains; who are the ones creating this idea of memory “worthy of remembering” ?
In this series, members from Japan and Korea visit the “tangible object of memories” in Miike Coal Mine in Omuta, situated in southern Fukuoka Prefecture, which was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2015. Exploration of the meaning of history that has been passed on through generations let us pose simple questions that often go unquestioned.
In our previous story, we found that in Meiji-era Japan, which was on the verge of becoming a huge capitalist nation, socially marginalized people, such as prisoners and colonialists, were engaged in dangerous labor to support the nation’s core industries.
This time, we will look outside of Japan and explore the often politicized issue of cultural heritage registration and the potential of citizens’ collaboration by visiting monuments that were constructed through the cooperation of local citizens.
From “what we saw” to “what we want to see together”
In addition to being dangerous and hard work, working in the coal mines was also a prejudiced occupation because many prisoners were mobilized as the main labor force (see previous article). As the industry grew in size, prisoners of war from Korea, China, and after World War II, the Allied Forces, were mobilized to fill the labor force that could no longer be supplied domestically.
One of the controversial issues at the time of the World Heritage listing in 2015 was whether or not this “forced labor” occurred. The Japanese government has officially acknowledged the fact that workers were mobilized from all over East Asia “against their will” and were “forced to work”.
However, the Industrial Heritage Information Center in Tokyo, which was opened to the public in June 2020, displayed testimonies and materials that denied the forced labor of Koreans, drawing criticism from inside and outside Japan.
On the 12th of the following month, a joint research team of UNESCO’s International Monuments and Sites Conference released a report stating that the introduction of the Industrial Revolution Heritage Center effectively denies the issue of the forced mobilization of people from the Korean Peninsula. It pointed out that the content of the center’s exhibition “lacks the perspective of the victims.
Meanwhile, at the Museum of Colonial History in Seoul, Korea, from July 16 to November 7, an exhibition co-hosted by the Korean Institute for Ethnic Studies with the Japanese Victims of Forced Labor Support Foundation, “Remember the Victims’ Voices! Display the history of forced mobilization! will be held from July 16 to November 7.
In addition to the video testimonies of victims of forced labor at the Takashima Coal Mine in Nagasaki and the Miike Coal Mine in Fukuoka, which are being shown for the first time, the exhibition will also feature video testimonies of 19 victims of forced labor during the colonial period by Imperial Japan.
The Korean Institute for Ethnic Studies issued a statement at the opening of the exhibition, saying, “Citizens of Korea and Japan, who have been making efforts to reveal the truth about forced labor, support and welcome the recommendations made public by the World Heritage Committee.
Politicization led by disagreements
The Government of Japan made the following statement at the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee on July 5, 2015, on the occasion of the decision to include Japan on the World Heritage List.
“More specifically, Japan is prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites, and that, during World War II, the Government of Japan also implemented its policy of requisition.”—Decision on the Inclusion of “Industrial Revolution Sites in Meiji Japan: Iron and Steel Manufacturing, Shipbuilding and Coal Industry” in the UNESCO World Heritage List
This sentence has been annotated as follows.
 The expressions ‘brought against their will’ in this statement and “forced to work” are used to mean, with regard to people from the Korean Peninsula, that they were requisitioned under the National Requisition Ordinance which was applied to the Korean Peninsula at the time and that, given the nature of the policy of requisition, there were also cases in which they were requisitioned against their will.
 The expression ‘under harsh conditions’ refers to circumstances surrounding workers at the time who were given “unbearable sufferings and pains“ “under the extreme situation of wartime” as described in a Government’s Written Reply (as below).
 This statement is based on the position of the Government of Japan held hitherto, and does not include anything new.
 The Government of Japan has repeatedly made it clear that this statement by the Japanese delegation does not acknowledge that there was illegal “forced labour”, and this point has been clearly conveyed to the Korean side.
The limits of questioning the legality of wartime violence within the framework that was in effect at the time are a point of debate even today.
The fact that people were brought in “against their will” and “forced to work” for life-threatening labor was certainly not “illegal” forced labor in the context of an imperialist ideology that exploited colonial resources, including human beings, until they were exhausted. The fact that they were “forced to work” was certainly not “illegal” forced labor in an imperialist ideology that exploited colonial resources, including human lives until they perished.
However, why does the government, which represents a Democratic nation of Japan who has been on a long journey to clear up its past mistakes since the end of the war, still insist on the “legality” of forced labor within the framework of fascist time, even though it acknowledges the fact and the past of foreign forced labor?
Humanism as the key
According to Nakagawa’s “My Town 1995: Midsummer’s Abandoned Mines,” the conditions for hiring miners at Mitsui Miike prior to the start of the Pacific War were “indigenous to the region and permanent residents” and “those engaged in agriculture and not accustomed to the modern world. It can be seen that the occupation of miner was a place for farmers who lost their jobs in the wave of industrialization.
With the outbreak of the war, however, the situation changed drastically as the domestic labor force gradually became insufficient. By mobilizing Koreans and Chinese to supplement the labor force, Japan tried to survive the end of the war.
Yasuto Takeuchi, a historical researcher, estimated the number of workers taken from Korean Peninsula to the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine to be about 9,300 based on a detailed survey based on the list of the Labor Bureau of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, materials from the Coal Control Association, and Fukuoka Prefecture Special High School materials, authoring his book “Investigation: Forced Labor of Koreans (1) Coal Mines.
The book also states that the number of Korean laborers brought to over 60 mines in Fukuoka Prefecture exceeded 150,000 by May 1945.
From the testimonies, it is not difficult to see the lives of those taken away were incomparably pathetic. There are a number of testimonies of people trying to escape, saying, “I’m going to die anyway, so I decided to run away.”
“We were subjected to long hours of overwork in the coal mines, 15 hours or more. Injuries were common, absenteeism led to further reduction of poor food, violence, forced savings, and arrests for those who resisted. Such days were repeated for innocent people.“
(Yasuto Takeuchi “Survey of Forced Labor for Koreans (1) Coal Mines)
A glimpse of the possibilities at the citizen level
The political confrontation over forced labor ultimately boils down to the question of how to deal with the memories of the unreasonable torment, suffering, and hurt of individuals. In this, ideology or high-level diplomatic discussions are nothing but useless.
So how is the inhumanity of “forced labor” dealt with at the civilian level, such as local governments and residents, where the legacy of memory remains?
Mr. Yuji Fujiki, the representative of the “Omuta-Arao Coal Mining Town Fan Club” (known by many as “Fan Club”), told us about the clues that remain in the city of Omuta.
First we went to Mado Daiichi Park in Omuta City.
Here holds a monument to the forced removal of Koreans that was built in 1997. Some of the Koreans who were brought to Mitsui-Miike were living at the Mado facility, and their writing was found in the closet during a investigation, which later used as a monument.
The following is the content of the founding statement.＊
During World War II, several thousand Koreans were forced to work in the Miike Coal Mine in Omuta. About 200 of these Koreans were housed in the Mado Company Housing.
In a closet in one of the 51 buildings of Mado Company Housing, a group of people who studied the history of forced labor discovered a wall scroll that expressed their nostalgia for their home.
Even though it was during the war, it caused a great deal of sacrifice to the Koreans, and when we think of the pain of the victims, we must not repeat this kind of act again.
Therefore, in order to pass on the tragedy of war and the preciousness of peace to the next generation by restoring the “Wall Book” to this site, this monument is hereby built.
–Omuta City, February 1997
＊The building itself has now been demolished, so only the letters are kept in the Coal Industry Museum in Omuta.
While the Japanese government refuses to acknowledge the inhumanity of forced labor, the city of Omuta has made a clear pledge not to make the same mistake again and to pass on peace to the next generation. We were astonished by the difference in attitude between the two.
It was a glimpse into the “margins” of relationship-building for the future, which can only be done at the level of local government and citizens through a face-to-face prayer, rather than through a discussion with no presence of human face, complicatedly intertwined with the state, power, and national interests.
Priest himself worked tirelessly to build the memorial
The next stop was Shobouji Temple in Arao City, Kumamoto Prefecture, where two monuments were erected in 1972 to commemorate the victims of forced labor at Mitsui Miike. One monument was for the Koreans, and the other one was for the Chinese.
The monument of remembrance for the Koreans in Shobouji Temple is called “Fujii-no-to”. It is a memorial to all the Koreans who lost their lives in hard labor, as well as a reminder of the reunification of North and South Korea, which continues to be severed after the Cold War.
In addition to mourning for the Chinese victims, the “Cenotaph for the Chinese Martyrs (中国人殉難者慰霊碑)” is also said to be a symbol of hope for bilateral relations between Japan and China as diplomatic relations were restored in 1972, the year it was built.
The chief priest of Shobouji Temple, Akahoshi, was the one who worked hard to build this monument.
In a previous interview, Akahoshi said that he had been begging for alms for three years to raise money for the construction of the monument when there were still no diplomatic relations between China and Japan. Eventually, he succeeded in raising a total of 350,000 yen on his own. He said that he dared to take the form of begging for alms in order to collect people’s feelings of offering.
Listening to the story, we were filled with an incessant sense of gratitude for the fact that the local people in the region were making amends for the past and passing on a warning to the future.
At the same time, rather than leaving this responsibility up to a few people, there is definitely a way for us living in this moment, to face up to this history and carry on their hard work.
“Sorrow crosses borders”: connected minds in the worst Sino-Japan relations in history
A memorial monument built by the Japan-China Friendship Association also stands in Miyaura Sekitan Memorial Park.
According to the inscription, 2,481 Chinese were taken to the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine, and 635 of them died. And at the Miyaura Mine, 44 out of 54 were lost, indicating the inhumane working environment.
The monument is relatively new, having only been built in 2013. The previous year, 2012, was said to be the worst year for bilateral relations between the two countries since the end of World War II, due to a series of events that provoked Japan-China relations, including territorial disputes.
However, that is just a story between two governments. Thinking about the fact that the monument was erected at that time with the cooperation of the peoples of Japan and China, makes us realize once again that the connection between citizens does not depend on politics at all, nor does it have to.
Citizens’ prayer gave it an invaluable meaning
The last place we visited was Amagi Park in Omuta City. A memorial service is held here every year.
In Amagi Park, there is a “Memorial Tower for Victims of Conscription” with an inscription in Korean. It was built in 1995 by the Korean community in Omuta, with the cooperation of the municipal government of Omuta, three companies (Mitsui Coal Mining Co., Omuta Plant of Mitsui Toatsu Chemicals Co., and Omuta Plant of Denki Kagaku Kogyo Co.).
The monument still stands proudly, facing the direction of the Korean Peninsula.
With the help of Mr. Fujiki, we were able to talk to Mr. Woo Pang-geun, the representative of Korea in Japan in Omuta, who was the driving force behind the construction of this memorial tower.
The experience of hearing from an acquaintance that a fellow employee who had been brought in for conscription died in a coal mine led Mr. Woo to start working on the construction of a cenotaph.
In 1990, Mr. Woo approached the city hall directly to ask for permission, and with the document in hand, he went to the company himself to ask for money to build the memorial.
However, not everything went as a smooth sailing.
At the time, gaining the trust of companies that were suspicious of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan was a daunting task. Nevertheless, he did not let up, and after five years and 250 rounds of persistent negotiations, he was able to secure a sufficient amount of money for the construction of the memorial.
In fact, Mr. Woo used to run a construction business, so it was not an impossibility for him to build 250 memorials at his own expense if he put in five years of time and effort.
However, he thought the significant meaning would be given to this monument with the site being set up in Omuta City, the cost raised by local companies, and with the citizens, including himself, helped to coordinate the work as main players. “The monument is filled with the thoughts and feelings of many people, and that is why it has such an invaluable meaning,” said Mr. Woo.
There is a clear difference in the interpretation of history between the government, the local community, and the citizens. Rather than focusing on the diplomatic standoff between nations, the cooling of the political climate, or the words of politicians to fuel thinly veiled patriotic sentiment, the spotlight should be shone more and more on the hard work that continues at the citizen level. –We couldn’t help but feel this way.
When it comes to relations with East Asian countries today, human faces are often difficult to find. However, even in the darkness where the light does not always penetrate, there are connections that have been handed down from generation to generation. The relationships that emerge from these connections based on mutual compassion may be what “cross-border” originally meant.
This is a diverse and free expression of connectivity that can only be depicted from the perspective of citizens. By following the steps taken by our predecessors through trial and error, and by carefully connecting them with our own, we can continue our journey toward the “future we want to see together” along with them.
Reported by Ayano Sasaki, Joomi Park, Momoko Tajima / English by Kaori Kohyama